Caps coach Barry Trotz was talking about home-and-home sets after his team’s practice on Thursday. “It’s hard in this league to win back-to-backs, but it’s not impossible,” opined the Washington bench boss.
A night later, the Caps proved him right. After downing the Blue Jackets by a 3-2 count in Columbus on Tuesday, Washington followed up with a 4-2 home ice win over the Jackets on Friday night at Capital One Arena.
“Those are two huge games against a very good hockey team,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “And we got the four points.”
Washington’s first two one-goal leads didn’t last very long in Friday’s game against Columbus. The Jackets responded by tying the game in less than 90 seconds of playing time on both occasions, and the two Metro foes – playing one another for the second time in as many games – were all even at 2-2 in the first minute of the second period.
So when Jay Beagle scored to give the Caps their third one-goal lead of the game at 4:38 of the second, one had to wonder what was coming next. But the Jackets never really got a chance to square the score in the next couple of minutes. Columbus center Lukas Sedlak was guilty of hi-sticking Caps pivot Nicklas Backstrom on the center ice face-off following Beagle’s goal, and Lars Eller pushed the Washington lead to 4-2 with a power-play goal on the ensuing man advantage.
Although there were still some 34 minutes to play at that point, the scoring was done for the night. Columbus would spend the rest of the evening pouring pucks on Caps goalie Braden Holtby – who made 35 saves to record his 28
th win of the season – while the Caps would spend the next 20 minutes misfiring at the Columbus net before settling in to close out the contest.
Washington actually missed the Columbus net more times (20) than it had shots on net (17), as it matched a single-game season low for shots on net.
Evgeny Kuznetsov loomed large in the game; it was one of those nights where he seemingly had his jet pack strapped on and he frequently had the puck on a string as well. Kuznestov set up Washington’s first goal on an extended offensive-zone shift early in the first. Cutting out of the corner with a step on Jackets’ defender Dean Kukan, Kuznetsov found John Carlson lurking above the paint at the back door, and he fed him neatly for the blueliner’s ninth goal of the season and a 1-0 Washington lead at 5:09 of the first.
Columbus responded soon thereafter, getting a fortunate bounce on the tying goal. Tom Wilson tried to roll the puck around the back of the Caps’ cage, but the puck hit a seam in the boards and kicked right out into the slot. Wilson tried in vain to reach it, but it came right to Pierre-Luc Dubois, and the Jackets’ rookie center tucked it behind Holtby to make it a 1-1 game at 6:28.
“I had no idea how it even was able to get back out there,” says Holtby, referring to the puck. “You’re usually aware of the Zamboni door for bounces and the ref, if he’s there. After it happened, I had no idea what went on. I looked over, and there was kind of a chunk missing out of the boards, so it’s something we’ll have to address.”
Late in the first, Kuznetsov was penalized for an interference violation at 17:52. As the Caps killed off the waning seconds of that penalty – and with the clock winding down in the first frame as well – they had possession of the puck in the attack zone. Kuznetsov exited the box with eight seconds left in the period and skated toward the Columbus net. Meanwhile, Matt Niskanen carried down the wall on the opposite side of the rink, and from just above the goal line, he floated the puck toward the net. The disc magically eluded everything in its path and rolled right to where Kuznetsov was skating. He wound up and blasted a shot behind Bobrovsky for a 2-1 Caps lead with just 1.4 seconds left in the first.
“It feels unbelievable,” says Kuznetsov, of going from the penalty box to lighting the lamp as time winds down in a period. “I get so many penalties this year, and most of them are my bad. I just had like seven seconds. I saw Nisky skate with the puck, and I wanted that puck so bad. Every time you get a penalty you want to do something good since you’re getting out of the box. But that one was a really lucky bounce.”
Again, Columbus responded quickly. Just 27 seconds into the second period, Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones picked up an errant pass and pumped it on net. Jackets winger Artemin Panarin got a stick on it and deflected it by Holtby to make it a 2-2 game.
About four minutes later, the Capitals regained the lead for good.
Washington winger Devante Smith-Pelly issued a blast on net from the left half wall, a shot that was deflected by Caps winger Chandler Stephenson. Bobrovsky stopped it, but Beagle outbattled the Jackets’ top defensive pairing of Jones and Zach Werenski for the rebound, and he potted it to put the Caps up by a goal for the third time in the game, 3-2 at 4:38 of the second.
Eller’s goal was a big one, giving the Caps some breathing room against the hard-forechecking and liberal shooting Jackets.
Columbus failed to convert – or even get a shot off – on a three-on-one shorthanded rush, and it was in poor position to defend the Caps’ odd-man rush on the power play. T.J. Oshie fed Eller, who had just come onto the ice for Backstrom, and Eller carried into Columbus ice down the right side on a three-on-two Washington rush. Eller sold the possibility of a return feed to Oshie, then snuck a shot past Bobrovsky on the short side to make it 4-2 at 6:09.
The Jackets owned a lopsided 28-6 advantage in shot attempts over the final 13:51 of the second period, as the Caps spent most of that time successfully defending in their end.
Washington went 20 minutes and 18 seconds without a shot on net in the immediate aftermath of the Eller goal, but it didn’t matter. The Jackets couldn’t solve Holtby in the game’s final 39 minutes while the Caps got four pucks behind a former Vezina Trophy winner on just 17 shots on net, only 13 of which came at five-on-five.
“They played hard,” says Trotz of the Jackets. “I thought we were really skating early. We had a ton of chances, we missed on them, missed the net way too much.”
For the Jackets, Friday’s loss was their fifth straight, and their fourth straight in regulation. Columbus started the night in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division standings, and the Jackets end the night in seventh place, just a point clear of the last place New York Rangers.
Had the Jackets swept the home-and-home set from Washington, they would have closed to within three points of the Caps in the Metro standings. As it is, the Jackets head home with an 11-point deficit between themselves and the Caps.
“There is no sense in getting frustrated,” says Jackets coach John Tortorella. “We’ve just got to work through it and just get ready for our next game.”
The next game to which Tortorella refers is on Saturday night in Columbus against the New Jersey Devils, who will be waiting there when the Jackets land in Ohio’s capital city in the wee hours of Saturday morning.