Slow starts have dogged the Caps early in the 2013-14 season, but Washington solved the problem on Saturday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Verizon Center. The Caps delivered a consistently solid 60-minute effort to come away with a 4-1 win over the Jackets.
“I think that’s a huge, huge game, not just because of the outcome,” says Caps defenseman Steve Oleksy, “but the entirety of the game I felt that we were ready every shift and we brought it every shift, which is huge. I think with an outcome like that, guys know and realize what we’re capable of when everybody comes in and competes for 60 minutes. I think that’s’ a huge win for us to build off of, and I think a lot of guys gained a lot of confidence from a game like that, and it’s nice to put up four goals in a game.”
Caps goaltender Braden Holtby stopped 37 of the 38 shots he faced to help the Caps salvage a pair of points from the final contest of a five-game homestand. Washington finished the homestand with a 2-3 record and is 3-3 overall on home ice in 2013-14.
“We did some good things,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “We did. It still doesn’t have the feeling of last year in the second half of the year. It doesn’t. I still think we have too many breakdowns in our own end, but I’m glad the guys got a win. It’s been a tough home stand.”
After the Caps and Jackets played a scoreless first 20 minutes, Columbus tempted fate early in the second when Brandon Dubinsky took an offensive-zone tripping penalty on Mike Green.
Thirty-two seconds after Dubinsky was seated, the Caps owned a 1-0 lead. Some sharp, authoritative passing from Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom gave Joel Ward a one-timer opportunity from the diamond, and the big winger parked it upstairs over the blocker of Columbus netminder Sergei Bobrovsky.
Less than six minutes later, Washington doubled its advantage. Oleksy pulled the puck off the right wing wall in the Columbus zone and skated toward the net. As he approached the dot, he deftly dangled his way around Jackets winger Cam Atkinson and fired. Bobrovsky made the stop, but the puck caromed right to Brooks Laich, who backhanded it home for his second goal of the season and a 2-0 Washington lead.
“I was coming into the slot there,” explains Oleksy, “and Marty [Erat] made a great play by just leaving it to area. Being a defenseman, you kind of know those situations. I knew [Atkinson] was expecting me to shoot it right away when I pulled it off the wall. I waited for him to make the first move, and I knew we had good traffic in front. I was just trying to get it around [Atkinson] and get it toward the net. Obviously Brookise being there in front did a great job tapping it in.”
It’s well worth noting, too, that Holtby made a stellar stop on Atkinson on a point-blank chance at the other end of the ice earlier in that same shift, too. Holtby’s key save accounted for a two-goal swing once Laich lit the lamp.
Facing a Columbus team that came into the contest with a three-game losing streak and was desperately trying to salvage something from the final game of a fruitless three-game road trip, the Capitals kept their foot on the gas in the third period.
Washington’s newly cobbled fourth line of Aaron Volpatti, Eric Fehr and Tom Wilson turned in a strong offensive zone shift early in the period, a shift that actually began with Fehr losing a draw in his own end. The Caps were able to get a wholesale line change while Columbus was only able to manage a partial change.
Martin Erat picked off a weak backhand pass from weary Jackets defenseman Nikita Nikitin and fed Troy Brouwer in front. Bobrovsky stopped Brouwer, but the Caps winger buried his own rebound as Nikitin sprawled in vain behind his goaltender, thus ending a shift that lasted 1:41.
“I got on the ice and I knew they were still tired,” says Laich of the Columbus defense. “But that’s what we want to do; we want to win that territory battle. It’s tough to play in your own end. It’s very tough to play in your own end, especially when the other team can get fresh bodies on. Good job by our guys, and then smart changes enabled us to keep the pressure going and Brouw gets rewarded with a goal.”
Owning a 3-0 lead early in the final frame, the Caps were given a chance to put the game away when Dubinsky was busted for slashing at 5:59. Washington needed just 35 seconds to score for the second time on the night with Dubinsky in the box.
Erat fed Mike Green at the point, and Green teed up a one-timer for Alex Ovechkin from the latter’s “office” near the left dot. Ovechkin’s shot trickled through Bobrovsky to give Washington a 4-0 lead.
Holtby’s shutout bid was spoiled with less than five minutes left when Artem Anisimov scored on a Columbus rush, converting a nice feed from Marian Gaborik.
“I thought we played a lot harder tonight,” observes Holtby. “Our [defensemen] were challenged to play meaner and whatnot, and they did an absolutely fabulous job of it. It makes life a lot easier in our defensive zone. We obviously want to clean up some systems stuff, but as far as the way we played, we played extremely hard and generated a lot of offensive chances because of it, too.”
“We unraveled,” sighs Columbus coach Todd Richards. “I think even after those first two goals, we started to go after them, but we weren’t good enough. We got what we deserved. I think the chances were there. They had some chances, but we got what we deserved tonight.”
Saturday Night Special – Holtby ran his career record in regular season Saturday contests to a gaudy 12-2-1 with his win over the Jackets. He has three shutouts, a 1.91 GAA and a .937 save pct. in 15 career Saturday starts.
Washington’s mediocre play over the last several games has masked some strong efforts from Holtby. Since being pulled in the first period of the season’s second game against Calgary on Oct. 3, Holtby is 2-3 in five starts, but he has posted a 2.03 GAA and a .938 save pct. in those five appearances. He has faced 30 or more shots in four consecutive starts
Special Delivery – Washington was 2-for-4 on the power play in Saturday’s game, marking the fourth time in eight games this season that the Caps have managed multiple power-play goals in the same game.
The Caps have now clicked on 10 of 30 (33.3%) extra-man chances this season, tops in the NHL.
The Capitals killed off all three Columbus power plays in Saturday’s game, including one in the first frame when the game was still scoreless. Washington has been successful on each of its last 10 penalty-killing missions, and its 85.7% kill rate on the season, sixth best in the circuit.
Line Dancing – After keeping his top nine forwards intact on their respective lines for each of the first seven games of the season, Oates shuffled the deck and changed all but the top trio of Johansson, Backstrom and Ovechkin.
The early returns were strong.
Washington’s second line of Erat, Laich and Brouwer was particularly dominant on the night. The trio combined for two goals, three assists and 14 shot attempts, 11 of which came off Brouwer’s stick.
“They obviously had a great night,” says Oates. “Marty with three helpers, Brooksie got one, Brouw got one. They played very strong.”
The Jason Chimera-Mikhail Grabovski-Ward unit combined to fire nine pucks while the Backstrom line launched 17.
“Today we were on every puck,” says Holtby. “We were trying to get it to the net, trying to force some offensive chances and then [we were] hard on it to get it back again. And that creates even more energy when guys are close to scoring and you can see that they want to drive it to the net every time they get it. We were relentless with that, and that’s why we scored four goals.”
The O Is For Offense – Oleksy has three assists in six games this season, all of then coming at even strength. He has as many even-strength points as the rest of Washington’s defensemen have combined to register.
Water In The Desert – Erat notched his first point of the season with a secondary assist on Laich’s goal. The helper ended a string of 11 straight games without a point for Erat, dating back to last season.
Erat added assists on the Brouwer and Ovechkin goals in the third for his first multiple-point game as a member of the Capitals.
The 11-game points drought had been the longest of his NHL career. Erat has gone nine games without a point three separate times during his 740-game NHL career. His most recent nine-game gap between points occurred from Feb. 6-21, 2009.
After averaging 8:46 per night while skating on the fourth line in the first seven games of the campaign, Erat worked 17:49 on Saturday, the most he has logged in any of his 17 regular season games as a member of the Capitals.
“It’s nice to have a good game,” says Erat, “but in the end it is all about the wins, and we got the win and that is the bottom line.”
Erat’s three-assist game on Saturday was his first since Dec. 4, 2010.
Mojo Working – Johansson came into Saturday’s game with three shots on goal in the previous seven games this season. Johansson matched that total in the first period against Columbus, and he finished the night with four shots on net.
Metropolitan Milestone – Saturday’s win was Washington’s first against a Metropolitan Division opponent, leaving the Caps with a 1-2 record against divisional foes. The victory vaulted the Caps into sole possession of fourth place in the eight team division.
The Caps’ next game against a Metro opponent will be Nov. 1 against the Flyers in Philadelphia, the final game of a five-game road junket.
Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears spent the weekend in Newfoundland, taking on the St. John’s IceCaps. On Friday night, the Bears went into the third period all even at 1-1, but surrendered four goals to fall 5-1.
On Saturday, the Bears’ fortunes took a northward turn in Newfoundland. Peter LeBlanc staked Hershey to a 1-0 lead with his first of the season at 5:42 of the first, getting help from David Kolomatis and Dmitry Orlov.
The Bears’ power play unit doubled the advantage early in the second on Derek Whitmore’s second of the campaign with a single assist from Jeff Taffe. Later in the middle period, Orlov netted his first goal of the season with a solo helper from Ryan Stoa.
The Bears finished off the night’s scoring when Casey Wellman netted his first of the season from Orlov early in the third. Philipp Grubauer stopped all 30 shots he faced to earn the shutout and Hershey’s first win of the season (1-2-1). With a three-point night, Orlov earned first-star honors.
Hershey returns home next weekend when it hosts Hartford on Saturday and Norfolk on Sunday at Giant Center.
Down a level, the defending Kelly Cup champion Reading Royals opened up their 2013-14 season with a 3-2 shootout victory over the South Carolina Stingrays at Sovereign Center on Saturday. T.J. Syner and Louie Caporusso scored for Reading and Riley Gill stopped 20 of the 22 shots he faced prior to the shootout.
The two teams meet again in Reading on Sunday afternoon.
By The Numbers – Green’s 25:02 led the Capitals … Karl Alzner paced the Caps with 3:11 in shorthanded ice time … Brouwer led the Capitals with six shots on goal and five hits … James Wisniewski led the Jackets with seven shots on net … Each team had 34 shots on goal at even strength.