Proverbial Four-Point Game – Yes, it’s the first week of December, and yes, about two-thirds of the regular season remains stretched ahead on the horizon. But Saturday night’s home game against the Metropolitan Division-leading Columbus Blue Jackets was still an important one for Washington.
Win, and you’re standing in fifth place in the Metro, only four points back of the first-place Blue Jackets. Lose, and you’re eight points south of the top spot, and only two points clear of seventh-place Carolina, which also has two games in hand on Washington. It’s important to keep that top spot within reach, and the Caps can remember from 2014-15 just how difficult and how frustrating it is to chase teams in the modern NHL, redolent of loser points and postgame skills competitions.
The Caps found a way to win 4-3 over the Jackets, taking them down in regulation. Washington scored twice before many of the Capital One Arena patrons had been seated, it regained the lead after the Jackets rallied with a pair of goals to tie the game in the second, and it withstood a late and furious push from the Jackets in the third.
Sunday morning’s NHL standings show 21 teams – two-thirds of the league – crammed between 26 and 35 points in the standings. In the Eastern Conference, six teams separated by five points are scrambling for positioning for the two wild card playoff berths. The Caps currently occupy the second of those spots.
Fifteen teams in the league have won between 14-18 games. The other 16 have won between 6-13 games. Eight points separate the top seven teams in the Metro Division, and a total of 10 points separates the seven denizens of the Central Division. Eight points separates the top six teams in the Pacific Division.
After one of Washington’s games last week, Caps coach Barry Trotz uttered this sentence: “You’re only as good as your last game.”
Those words have never been truer than they are this season. An NHL team can’t make the playoffs in December, but it can go a long way toward missing them. The Philadelphia Flyers have allowed the fewest goals of any NHL team at 5v5 this season, giving up only 39 such goals in 26 games (the Caps have allowed 50 in 27 games). Yet the Flyers also own a 10-game losing streak and are in last place in the Metro.
Points are the only currency that matters, and pulling them in on a regular basis is the only way to remain relevant in this era of extreme parity. The Caps got two on Saturday, but more importantly, they kept Columbus from getting any, and they kept a loss (to Los Angeles on Thursday) in their previous game from expanding to a multi-game slide.
Until they host San Jose on Monday, that’s the best the Caps can do.
Pushing The Right Buttons – After each of the Caps’ last two losses, Trotz and his staff made instant adjustments that paid off instantly and prevented losses from mounting.
In the wake of a 4-1 setback to Calgary on Nov. 20, Trotz shook up his top six forwards, reuniting Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin and putting together the combinations that have now helped Washington to four wins in its last five games.
After Thursday’s loss to Los Angeles, Trotz rejiggered his bottom six forwards. It took only 126 seconds of playing time for each of those newly cobbled trios to find the back of the net at the start of Saturday’s game against Columbus.
Brett Connolly, reinserted into the lineup after two games as a healthy extra, scored on his first shift of the game at 1:03 of the first period. Alex Chiasson notched his fourth goal of the season just over a minute later. Washington's bottom six had been relatively dormant offensively for a few games, but that group came through with a pair of quick and early strikes in an important divisional game against a Columbus team that had scored first in seven straight games and nine of its previous 10 contests.
The Jackets are 12-3-1 when they score first this season.
Saved – Caps goalie Braden Holtby stopped 32 shots on Saturday to earn his 14
th win of the season. But Holtby may have stolen this game for the Capitals. He robbed Josh Anderson on a two-on-none rush in the first, made a dazzling stop on Boone Jenner a few minutes later, and he stoned noted Caps killer Cam Atkinson with just under four minutes left in the game. All three of those stops preserved what was a two-goal Washington lead at those respective junctures of the contest.
“You read a player’s tendencies; you read their body, their language and their stick blade,” says Holtby, in recounting the right pad save on Anderson in the first period. “Obviously that’s a play where if a guy puts a good shot on it, there is really not much a goalie can do. You kind of hope they mess up a little bit.
“But at that time of the game, you know they’re going to come with something after [giving up] a quick two goals. Good teams always come back with some sort of chance or some sort of pressure, and that’s where your goalie or someone has to step up and make a big play.”
The stop on Atkinson loomed even larger when Zach Werenski scored to narrow the Caps’ lead to 4-3 less than a minute after Holtby’s denial.
“I thought it was him,” says Holtby on the Atkinson stop. “It happened really quick to really be sure. I know that he is either a quick shot or comes in and [makes] a couple of dekes. So I just tried to be patient and wait until the last minute to read it and where the shot was going. I just got a piece of it.”
Saturday Night Special – With his Saturday night win over Columbus, Holtby maintains his perfect Saturday record of 6-0-0 with a 1.84 GAA and a .947 save pct. in six starts this season.
Lifetime, Holtby is now 53-16-9 with nine shutouts, a 2.12 GAA and a .927 save pct.
Climbing The Ladders – Ovechkin’s power-play goal in the final minute of the second period restored the Caps’ lead at 3-2 after Columbus scored twice to tie it. Ovechkin’s goal – coming with 37.6 seconds left in the second period – was the 218
th power-play goal of his NHL career, making him the active leader in the league in that category, and moving him into 10
th place on the all-time list, one ahead of former Caps Mike Gartner and Jaromir Jagr.
Ovechkin’s goal was the 577
th of his NHL career, tying him with newly minted Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Recchi for 20
th place on the NHL’s all-time list. Next up for Ovechkin on that list is 19
th place Jari Kurri with 601 goals.
Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears hosted the Milwaukee Admirals on Saturday night, and the Bears scored once in each period to support the 21-save efforts of goaltender Vitek Vanecek in a 3-0 Hershey win.
Aaron Ness staked the Bears to a 1-0 lead at 10:09 of the first, getting help from Chris Bourque and Tyler Lewington. Herehsye nursed that lead until the latter stages of the second when Mathias Bau netted his seventh of the season, Wayne Simpson and Zach Sill assisting at 17:03.
With 1:10 remaining in the game, Jonas Siegenthaler iced it for the Bears with a shorthanded, unassisted empty-netter, accounting for the 3-0 final. The goal was Siegenthaler’s second of the season.
Vanecek improved to 2-1-0 on the season. The 10-10-0-3 Bears are back in action on Sunday afternoon at Giant Center, hosting the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Down a level, the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays dropped a 4-2 home ice decision to the Orlando Solar Bears on Saturday night. Dylan Margonari and Kelly Zajac scored the South Carolina goals, and Jeff Jakaitis made 20 saves in a losing effort in the South Carolina nets.
The 10-4-2-1 Stingrays host the Greenville Swamp Rabbits on Sunday afternoon at North Charleston Coliseum.
By The Numbers – Matt Niskanen led the Caps with 24:55 in ice time and five hits … Niskanen and Ovechkin led the Caps with four shots on net each, and Niskanen led Washington with nine shot attempts … Dmitry Orlov and Brooks Orpik led the Caps with three blocked shots each … Jay Beagle won 10 of 12 draws (83%) while Backstrom won 13 of 18 (62%) … Eleven of the 18 Washington skaters recorded a point in the game, with only John Carlson (two assists) notching more than one.