On Saturday night at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, the Caps’ stars came to play under the stars. Washington’s top talents shone brightly, leading the way to a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2018 Stadium Series contest between the two clubs.
Five different Caps found the back of the net, and a trio of Caps – Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and Evgeny Kuznetsov – had a goal and two assists each to pace the attack. Alex Ovechkin netted his 40
th goal of the season, reaching that plateau for the ninth time in his 13-year NHL career.
“It’s huge,” says Backstrom of the performance of the Caps’ top players. “We got a lot of ice time, especially on the power play there in the first period, so it was nice that we could get rewarded from that. We had a good night, so it was good for the team.”
The offensive largesse and a stout defensive performance by all helped put Braden Holtby in the win column for the first time since Feb. 9, as he made 27 stops to go along with the two dozen shot blocks from his teammates in front of him.
“I thought we did the right things,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We were skating. We were putting pressure on the puck. We had people in the right areas and we were committed in the right area. So it was a good performance, because we had a couple that we probably could say wouldn't be our best.”
The goals came fast and furious early in the game, three of them ahead of the game’s first television timeout.
Working the cycle behind the Toronto cage on his first shift of the game, Caps center Jay Beagle drew a holding call on Leafs defenseman Travis Dermott at 2:43 of the first, giving the Capitals the game’s first power play opportunity. Just over a minute later, the Caps took advantage of the chance to forge an early 1-0 lead.
After taking the puck from Carlson, Backstrom put a shot toward the net from the right dot, and Toronto netminder Frederik Andersen made the stop. But Washington’s Kuznetsov located the rebound at the top of the paint, put it on his forehand and buried it at 3:50 of the first.
It took the Leafs less than two minutes to respond. Toronto kept the puck in the Washington end seconds after the Caps won a draw to Holtby’s right, and Roman Polak put a shot on goal from the right point, just as Zach Hyman was driving by the top of the paint. The shot caught Hyman’s right skate and was redirected behind Holtby to knot the score at 1-1 at 5:20 of the first. Hyman’s goal came on the Leafs’ first shot on net of the night.
One tick less than a minute later, the Caps restored their lead on a strong forecheck. Backstrom and Tom Wilson did the grunt work behind the Toronto goal, and Wilson made a perfect feed to set up Ovechkin in front. The Caps captain ripped it home for a 2-1 lead at 6:19, his 40
th goal of the season and No. 598 of his NHL career.
After Washington successfully snuffed out its first shorthanded mission of the night, the Caps got another power play chance at 15:28. Once again, Washington’s extra-man unit cashed in to expand its lead.
The Caps’ second power-play goal of the game came off a rush opportunity, with Kuznetsov carrying down the right side with speed, then dishing to Backstrom in front just as he crossed the goal line. Backstrom scored from the slot to make it a 3-1 game with 3:40 left in the first.
A couple of minutes ahead of the midpoint of the second, the Leafs pulled within one on a Nazem Kadri goal. Patrick Marleau gained the Caps’ zone and fed Kadri, who spun around and let go of a shot through traffic from a few feet above the right circle to make it a 3-2 game at 7:38 of the first.
The Caps didn’t need much time to respond after the first Leafs’ goal, and even less time was required for a Washington answer after the second Toronto tally. Less than half a minute after Kadri cut the lead to one, Carlson restored the two-goal cushion a mere 27 seconds later, with Washington’s fourth line handling the setup chores.
Carlson sent Beagle into the Leafs’ zone with the puck, and he fed Chandler Stephenson on the left side before continuing on to the net. From a deep angle, Stephenson put a shot on goal, and Andersen made the stop. But the puck kicked right out to the slot, giving Carlson a wide open net and he did not miss, making it 4-2 at 8:05.
Toronto coach Mike Babcock issued a coach’s challenge, alleging that Beagle interfered with Andersen’s ability to make the save. But replays clearly showed that it was Leafs defender Morgan Rielly who impeded Andersen’s lateral movement on a shot he was highly unlikely to stop anyway.
Washington scored the game’s next two goals after the first Toronto tally, and the Caps did so again after the Leafs’ second strike. Less than three minutes after Carlson’s goal, Kuznetsov sprung Jakub Vrana on a breakaway, Vrana beat Andersen through the five-hole to make it a 5-2 game at 10:49. Coming off an excellent game on Tuesday against Ottawa, Vrana netted his 11th goal of the season and his first since Dec. 14.
During the next television timeout, Babcock hooked Andersen in favor of backup Curtis McElhinney. Andersen was dented for five goals on 25 shots before being pulled for performance reasons for the first time in the 2017-18 season.
“I mean, it was going in,” says Babcock of his decision to pull Andersen. “And I didn't want to leave him in there and have a bunch more go in. So he's our guy. He's our starter. We've got to look after him the best we can. Mac got an opportunity. I thought Mac played good for us, gave us a chance to crawl back. We didn't do that but he gave us that chance.”
The only remaining drama of the evening came at the exact midpoint of the third period, when the overhead lights went dim as the two teams were switching ends of the ice. There was a delay of 15 minutes while the lights were powered back up, and the game concluded without a hitch.
Although the names of the Caps’ biggest stars dotted the scoresheet liberally, the rest of the crew did more than its fair share of heavy lifting, too. This was truly a team victory, and it resulted in two hard-earned and much needed standings points for Washington.
“We were a very determined group today, I thought,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, who led all skaters on both sides with 24:05 in ice time and with six hits. “We played like it. We played well, just really fast and aggressive, on the puck all over the rink. Guys made some nice plays to score some goals, and we were able to play with a lead the rest of the game.”
Leading after the first 20 minutes has proven to be a formula for extreme success for the Caps this season; they’re now 22-0-1 when taking a lead into the game’s first intermission.
“You follow your top guys,” says Trotz, “and I thought tonight you look at Backstrom, Ovechkin and Wilson, that line led, and Kuznetsov followed that. And on the back end, I thought our defense corps as a group was really solid. And I thought Holts had a real good response, especially in the second period. He had a couple of big saves for us.
“So every team follows their leaders, and when your leaders are dialed in, I thought they were dialed in tonight. I thought they just pulled the rest of the group.”