Playing their first Metropolitan Division game in just over three weeks, the Capitals found themselves at the bottom of a six-team cluster in the Metro coming into Saturday’s home game with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jackets entered the game at the top of that cluster, six points north of Washington.
The Caps struck first, struck early and never trailed, holding off a resilient Columbus team. With a great performance from goaltender Braden Holtby and timely tallies from four different players, the Caps edged Columbus 4-3, keeping the Metro leaders within reasonable reach.
Holtby finished with 32 saves – half of them in the third period and several of them jaw-dropping – to earn his 14
th win of the season.
“I thought tonight Braden was the reason we won,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “He was the best player on the ice tonight. I thought he fought through traffic, he was really strong in a lot of areas and he made some huge saves. I think last game [on Thursday against Los Angeles] he would probably say wasn’t his best, so he responded with a real strong one today.”
Columbus played at home on Friday night, and the Jackets traveled to D.C. immediately after a 4-2 win over Anaheim. The Caps put the visitors on their heels right away.
After sitting out the previous two games as a healthy scratch, Washington winger Brett Connolly suited up on Saturday and made his presence felt immediately, on his first shift of the game. Finding a soft spot in the Columbus coverage, Connolly crept into the high slot and took a feed from Lars Eller along the right half wall. Connolly ripped a shot past Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky just 63 seconds after the opening puck drop.
Exactly 63 seconds later, the Caps doubled that advantage.
Devante Smith-Pelly got into the left wing corner ahead of his man and rolled the puck along the wall behind the Columbus cage. Matt Niskanen pinched down the right wing boards and fired a shot toward the net. That bid was blocked, but the puck kicked right to Alex Chiasson, who wasted no time in netting his fourth of the season to make it 2-0 at 2:06.
Holtby enabled the Caps to maintain that two-goal margin with a pair of excellent right pad denials, the first on Josh Anderson on a two-on-none down low, and the second on Boone Jenner. Holtby’s key stops enabled the Caps to take that 2-0 lead to the first intermission.
Early in the second period, the Caps turned in a disastrous shift in their own end –repeatedly failing to execute on clearing attempts – and Columbus’ Artemi Panarin fired a one-timer past Holtby from the left circle, halving the Washington lead to 2-1 at 3:51 of the middle frame.
“Putting pressure on their [defense],” says Anderson of that dominant Blue Jackets shift. “I think there were about three or four turnovers on that shift and we just kept battling and playing together. Then you see [Pierre-Luc Dubois] make a great play to [Panarin], and [Panarin] just one-timed it. Nice shot by him.”
Washington began to tilt the tides of territory and possession in the back half of the second, starting with a series of offensive-zone shifts that had the Jackets hemmed in their end for longer than they would have liked, forcing them to ice the puck twice. The Caps managed three line changes against the same weary Jackets, and they generated a lot of heat around the Columbus net, but not enough to light the lamp.
A pair of power play opportunities – the only ones of the evening for either side – came the Caps’ way late in the second when Jenner was twice incarcerated for holding in the offensive zone exactly four minutes apart.
Columbus again exploited some lackluster puck management and play by the Caps in their own end, tying the game at 2-2 with 3:32 left in the second. Back in the lineup after an 11-game absence because of an upper body injury, Columbus winger Matt Calvert fired a one-timer past Holtby, a shorthanded goal that erased Washington’s early lead.
But with Jenner back in the box for a second time, the Caps scored a clutch power-play goal to forge a lead they would not relinquish.
With 37.6 seconds left in the second, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson combined to tee up Alex Ovechkin for a power-play strike from the captain’s left dot office, this one a well-placed wrister rather than the typical one-time blast.
Up 3-2 as the third period began, the Caps quickly restored that more comfortable two-goal cushion.
Evgeny Kuznetsov took a feed from Carlson on the rush, and beat Bobrovsky from in tight to notch his third goal in the last two games at 1:08 of the third. That Kuznetsov tally would prove to be the game-winner, and it was the fourth Washington goal to come within the first couple of minutes or the last minute of a period.
Columbus did not wither under the shadow of a two-goal deficit. The Jackets kept coming at the Caps in the third, and Washington needed more key saves from Holtby, the most dazzling of which was a glove stop on noted Caps killer Cam Atkinson with just under four minutes left. Another Columbus bid got behind Holtby, but stopped an inch or so short of the line before Jay Beagle swept it out of harm’s way.
It was difficult to tell whether Beagle lifted Panarin’s stick to prevent him from pouncing on it, or whether the winger raised his stick of his own accord in a case of premature jubilation.
Either way, that sequence and the stop on Atkinson loomed large when Zach Werenski scored to make it a 4-3 game with 3:11 remaining. The Caps and Holtby were able to close it out, earning their third straight victory against a Metro opponent.
“Other than the beginning,” says Jackets coach John Tortorella, “the first couple of minutes there where we just had a couple of blown coverages in the middle of the ice, I thought we showed some resiliency.
“We take two offensive-zone penalties back-to-back, and we have a bad change on one goal; those are the things that hurt you in this type of game. But I liked the way we kept on coming back and just grinding away.”
And the Caps liked the way they were able to score four times against Bobrovsky, who had limited each of his eight previous foes to two or fewer tallies.
“We have to work for our goals,” says Trotz. “Tonight, we were able to jump on them early and were able to use it to our advantage.”