Just over two weeks ago in Edmonton, the Caps righted what was a slightly listing ship. Coming off a 6-2 loss to the Canucks in Vancouver at the start of a three-game road trip through Western Canada, the Caps tightened things up in their own end for their next game two nights later against the Oilers, to good effect.
That 5-2 win over Edmonton on Oct. 28 spurred the Caps to their best spree of hockey on the young season. And with Sunday night’s 2-1 shootout win over the Oilers in Washington, the Caps have now won six of their last eight games, and they’ve taken four straight on the Capital One Arena ice surface.
Washington’s play in its own end has been at the root of its recent success. After surrendering four or more goals in half of its first 10 games this season, the Caps have held foes to two or fewer tallies in seven of the last eight games, not counting empty-net goals. The Capitals have allowed just a dozen five-on-five goals in their last eight games, beginning with the win over the Oilers in Alberta last month.
“It’s been getting better as we’ve grown,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz of his team’s defensive play. “I would probably say the last time we played Edmonton, whatever [number] of games back from there, I thought it sort of started coming.
“I think the Vancouver game was a little bit of a wake-up call for us. And then I think we got it back together, and it gives us a chance to win every night.
Sunday’s game featured a handful of the game’s most electric offensive talents, but it was defense, tight checking and goaltending that came to the fore. Neither side was able to score a legal goal – Edmonton had one waived off via video review in the second period – through the first 40 minutes of the contest.
That changed early in the third period when Edmonton’s Jujhar Khaira – a healthy scratch in each of the Oilers’ previous six games – jammed a puck into the Washington net on a goalmouth scramble to stake his club to a 1-0 lead at 1:32 of the third. For Khaira, the tally was his first of the season.
Edmonton’s slim advantage lasted less than four minutes. The Caps drew even on a strong offensive zone shift, with Dmitry Orlov evening the score at 5:14 of the third period with his own first goal of the campaign.
From the right point, Madison Bowey passed to partner Orlov on the left side. Orlov then dished to Tom Wilson on the left half wall, and made a beeline for space in the left circle. Wilson completed the give-and-go play with a sublime feed, and Orlov ripped a wrist shot high to the far side, beating Oilers goalie Laurent Brossoit to make it a 1-1 game.
“I bought some time,” says Orlov. “Their forward [Khaira] came close to me, and I made the pass and tried to jump in. And so I did. Whip made a nice play, he held it a little bit, got his guy coming and then he passed to me. It was a great play.”
“Snarls is a great player, and I saw that he had a bit of a jump on the guy once he gave it to me,” recounts Wilson. “[The Oilers] play a bit of a man-to-man system, so once he beat his guy I figured there might have been an opening, and I just kind of put it into space. He did the rest; he made a great shot, and that was a big goal for us.”
Two nights after earning the 200
th win of his NHL career, Caps goaltender Braden Holtby started on his third hundred. He made 29 saves, including several in short succession on a visibly frustrated Patrick Maroon in the waning minutes of the second period. At the conclusion of that sequence, Maroon went to the bench and destroyed his stick. If sticks were still made of wood, one would say he “whittled [it] into kindling,” as the great Tom Waits once rasped.
Overtime wasn’t as exciting as you’d expect given the firepower and speed available on both sides, and it ultimately solved nothing. The Caps skated off with the second point in the skills competition, picking up their sixth win in their last eight games, a run that began with that 5-2 victory over the Oilers in Edmonton late last month.
Edmonton was finishing up a four-game road trip and its first set of back-to-back games of the season. The Oilers lost a 4-2 decision to the Rangers in New York on Saturday, but they won the first two games of the trip in overtime. The Oilers went 2-1-1 on their journey.
“I thought we played a pretty solid game for a full 65 minutes, and perhaps our best played game on the road,” says Oilers coach Todd McLellan. “It’s unfortunate we didn’t come away with two points; we’re still struggling to score. But I liked a lot of our players, and I liked a lot about our game tonight.”
As for the Caps, they’ve played better and they will play better. They can thank Holtby for the two points tonight.
“I thought we were good for the first 30 minutes,” says Trotz. “We really didn’t give up a whole lot, and we had a couple of good chances. Our best chances were early in the game, and we didn’t bury them.
“[The Oilers] started hanging around, and when you get teams hanging around, they get a big belief. The last 10 minutes of the second period was probably our worst stretch of hockey in a while. And Holts kept us in. You look back and you say, ‘When your team is not at their best, you need your goalies to save the day sometimes. I would say Holts was fantastic for us today. He gave us a chance to get not only one point, but he gave us two points.
“They don’t count anything else but wins at the end of the day. We got the two points, and maybe not our best effort, so we’ll have to regroup and see if we can have a better effort [on Tuesday] in Nashville.”