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POSTGAME NOTEBOOK: Caps 4, Jackets 1

April 20, 2018
Get Me Re-Write – In their second-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017, the Caps got off on the wrong foot, dropping each of the first two games at home and putting themselves in a tough spot, going to Pittsburgh to play Games 3 and 4 against the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Washington eked out an overtime win in Game 3 to prevent itself from tumbling into an 0-3 chasm in the series, but the Caps dropped Game 4 to fall down 3-1 in the set. The Caps ended up forcing a Game 7 before bowing out of the series, and when they looked back afterwards, their failure to square the series in Game 4 loomed large.

Nearly a year later, the Caps’ first-round set with the Columbus Blue Jackets unfolded in eerily similar fashion, with Washington dropping the first two games on home ice, but halving the Jackets’ lead with a 3-2 double-overtime victory in Game 3.

Determined to alter the script from last year’s second-round series, the Caps did so with a convincing and methodical 4-1 triumph over the Blue Jackets in Columbus in Thursday night’s Game 4. The victory squares the series and shrinks it to a best-of-three set, with the Capitals’ home ice advantage restored. 

“I thought we played better tonight overall,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. “Obviously [we were] better defensively. We helped each other out better on the breakouts, I think. 

“They’re a good forechecking team so obviously you’ve got to be good on their breakouts and get back, and help out in the [defensive] zone first. That was huge on our side. And then we scored on our chances, too. It’s going to be key in the playoffs to score more goals than them, so good effort overall.” 

Puck Management 101 – Washington put on a puck management clinic for most of Thursday’s game, possessing it often and making mostly wise decisions about what to do with it when they had it. The Caps did not sit back with the lead, but they also did not throw pucks blindly at the net when they were able to possess in Columbus ice. They were more than content to have the Jackets chase them around and wear themselves out in that regard.

“I think we had a really good first half of the game,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson, “and I think we turned it over once, and they got a pretty good chance and some pretty good [offensive] zone time. I think that kind of sobered us up and made us realize what is necessary in a game like that, and I think we did a really good job of it all night.

“They scored that goal to kind of sneak back into it a little bit, and we didn’t miss a beat. Our next shift, we dominated them, and maybe one or two [shifts] after that, too. Those are the things you need to do to win. You can’t just sit back and accept rushes and just rely on blocking shots, making saves and just trying to chip it out. I think [offensive] zone time can wear them down, and they’ve got to change when they come up the ice. That’s the big thing, more than maybe even scoring a goal. Just the fact that if you’re in their zone and they’ve got to battle it out and change and get fresh guys out there. That’s a good kind of rotation that we were on the right side of tonight.”

Holting The Fort – Caps goalie Braden Holtby turned in a second straight strong performance, earning a second straight victory and squaring his career playoff record at 31-31 in the process. 

Holtby stopped 23 of the 24 shots he faced on Thursday, and he took a shutout into the third period. Boone Jenner’s deflection goal was the lone blemish on Holtby’s ledger for Game 4.

When Holtby was scuffling early in the second half of the 2017-18 regular season, one of the issues plaguing him was a tendency to surrender goals early in games. He surrendered a first-period goal in 13 straight starts from late January to early March, and he was pulled from four starts over a span of 11 starts, including a Feb. 26 game in Columbus in which he was pulled in a 5-1 Washington loss. 

In each of his two starts in Columbus in this series, Holtby blanked the Jackets in the game’s first 20 minutes. He ended the night with just a single goal against for the first time since a 3-1 win over Minnesota in D.C. on Nov. 18. 

“Obviously that’s a good way to set up a game,” says Holtby. “I think we have made some really good adjustments as a team to start controlling first periods instead of sitting on our heels. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due, and that’s to our guys playing outstanding right from the get-go, just being prepared, ready to battle and ready to play the right way right from the start. It was a big contributor in our two wins here.”

Four Score – T.J. Oshie’s power-play goal in the second period of Game 4 proved to be the game-winner. The goal was Washington’s seventh extra-man tally of the series, and they’ve scored at least one power-play goal in each of the games in the series to date. 

“I just think everyone is shooting,” says Carlson. “Sometimes you can get stuck thinking about the perfect play and tic-tac-toe and this and that. But when you see Nicky and Kuzy walking off the half wall when they give them space to shoot, that’s all part of a playoff series, adjustments and especially on the PK and the PP. I think teams adjust all the time, every single game. So if you’re being a little bit selfish and if you’re open, you shoot the puck. That’s what we’ve been doing. 

The four straight games with at least one power-play goal in the playoffs is the Caps’ longest such streak since they scored with the extra man in each of the last five games of their first-round series with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008, 10 years ago this month. 

Momentum Killers – Columbus had opportunities to seize the momentum in Thursday’s game, but the Caps were diligent in making sure that did not happen. Washington’s penalty kill played a role in shutting down a couple of those opportunities. 

Evgeny Kunzetsov took an offensive zone penalty just 34 seconds into the game, but the Caps’ penalty killers didn’t even permit the Jackets a shot attempt on the ensuing power play.  

Early in the second period, Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky made an excellent save to deny Tom Wilson on a breakaway bid, keeping the Caps’ lead at 1-0 at that point of the contest. Seconds later, Lars Eller was sent to the box for hooking, giving the Jackets a chance to tie the game. Nick Foligno hit the post, but that was as close as Columbus came to a shot on net on the power play in Thursday’s game. 

Finally, shortly after Boone Jenner scored the Jackets’ lone goal of the game at 6:22 of the third, Eller’s line turned in a dominant offensive zone shift to quell any Columbus hopes of a late comeback.

“The penalty kill is obviously something we were not happy with the first two games,” says Backstrom. “The last two games we’ve obviously done a great job. In the playoffs, you need everything. You need a good penalty kill, a good power play and good five-on-five. It was obviously a good effort from them. We got energy off that and we scored in the first. That was good.” 

Century City – Backstrom skated in the 100 thgame of his NHL playoff career on Thursday, and he reached that milestone exactly one game after teammate and frequent linemate Ovechkin did so. Neither Ovechkin nor Backstrom has ever missed a playoff game because of injury, but Backstrom incurred a one-game suspension in Washington’s first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins in 2012. 

When Backstrom suits up for Game 5 on Saturday, he and Ovechkin will have moved past Dale Hunter and Kelly Miller for the top spots in games played on Washington’s all-time playoff ledger. Both Hunter and Miller suited up for exactly 100 playoff games in a Caps sweater. 

By The Numbers – Matt Niskanen led the Caps with 24:29 in ice time … Wilson led Washington with seven shots on net, eight shot attempts and three hits … Brooks Orpik led the Caps with four blocked shots … Jay Beagle won 14 of 17 face-offs (82%).