It’s not often that you’ll see an NHL game in which a goaltender is beaten seven times, and yet that same goaltender ends up stealing the game for his team. That’s what happened on Tuesday as the Caps somehow squirreled away a pair of points in the opener of a five-game road trip, taking a 5-4 shootout decision from the Jets in Winnipeg.
In the face of multiple defensive breakdowns in front of him and a barrage of shots sent his way from the blades of Jets skaters, Caps goalie Braden Holtby kept his team within striking distance all night long. Even though he was reached for four goals during the game and three more in the shootout, Holtby was the main reason Washington was able to get out of town just ahead of the law, with those two pilfered points.
When the game had finally concluded, the first question of Caps’ coach Adam Oates related to whether he thought his team stole two points.
“Yeah, absolutely,” replied Oates. “[The Jets] played really well. We shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times when we had leads, especially in the second period. But they carried the play tonight.”
Winnipeg owned a lopsided 82-53 advantage in shots attempted, a 47-32 bulge in shots on goal and a 37-24 cushion in even-strength shots on goal in the game.
Holtby saw more rubber than I-95 on a holiday weekend in the summertime.
“I felt bad for Holtsy,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “He had to make some massive saves. That game probably should have been 7-4 or 8-4 for them. There were a couple of things that we do not like to see and we’re not happy with, but we are happy that we battled enough to get a win.”
The Jets had a chance to take an early lead on the game’s first shift. From the left wing corner, Evander Kane fed Blake Wheeler driving the net but the latter deflected the puck just wide. Winnipeg had two eerily similar chances later in the period, one from Anthony Peluso and one from Mark Schiefele, both with the same results.
Each team managed to kill off one shorthanded situation in the game’s first 20 minutes. Washington finally started to have some even strength success with its third line (Jason Chimera, Mikhail Grabovski and Joel Ward) just before its man advantage came late in the first, and that turned out to be a prelude to the second.
Early in the second, the Grabovski line and the Caps’ third defensive pairing of John Erskine and Steve Oleksy put together an excellent offensive zone shift. The forwards won battles down low, and Oleksy was able to adroitly keep the puck in and keep a modified cycle going on a couple of occasions. When the puck came out to the left point, Erskine kept it in and drove a slapper toward the net. Winnipeg goalie Ondrej Pavelec made the save, but Grabovski was there to pot the rebound for his fourth goal of the season and a 1-0 Caps lead at 3:11 of the second.
When Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien was whistled for roughing at 6:16 of the second, it gave the Caps’ vaunted power play a chance to go to work and pad Washington’s lead. Winnipeg was playing without its top two penalty-killing defensemen (Jacob Trouba and Mark Stuart) and its top penalty-killing forward (Jim Slater).
Instead of putting its foot on Winnipeg’s collective throat, the Caps’ power play layed an egg. The Jets scored shorthanded and added another tally just 70 seconds later to take a 2-1 lead.
Washington’s best weapon instead became a chink in its armor.
“We’ll talk about it with the guys [Wednesday],” says Oates of the team’s power play. “I think maybe we had been going at such a good clip, we got a little casual with it and the urgency wasn’t there. Especially when we had a 1-0 lead. I thought for sure here was a really good chance to take control of the game, and we ended up giving them basically two goals out of it.”
The fact that Washington’s one-goal lead that could have been a two-goal lead and instead became a one-goal deficit was worrisome enough in itself. But the Jets then tried to put their own chokehold on the contest, and only Holtby prevented them from doing so. The Jets had 11 shot attempts to only four for the Caps over a span of 7:19 where Winnipeg often dominated Washington in its own end.
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin put his own imprint on the game late in the second, with some help from linemate Marcus Johansson.
Just before the 16-minute mark of the second period and with Washington taking on water in its own end, Johansson collected a loose puck along the wall, high in the Washington end. He spotted Ovechkin and sprung him with a perfect pass. Ovechkin split the defense, went in on Pavelec, deked and scored to make it a 2-2 game at 15:50 of the period.
A shift later, Johansson cleanly won a left-dot, offensive-zone draw to Ovechkin who sliced a wrist shot past Pavelec to restore the Washington lead at 3-2. For Ovechkin, it was his second goal in a span of just 2:12.
Any designs he may have had on netting a natural hat trick dissipated when Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler scored in the final minute of the second to send the teams to their respective rooms all even at 3-3.
Having faced 19 shots in the middle session, Holtby spoke up and let his mates know they needed to put forth a better effort the rest of the way.
“He’s pretty quiet,” says Alzner of Holtby. “So when he says something, you know he’s upset about it or he really needs us all to hear something that he sees. It was good that he said that. And guys took notice. We tightened up a little bit in the third. It was nice to get the two points, but it was a fairly poor effort.”
With the Jets’ Olli Jokinen off for hooking early in the third, the Jets looked like they were about to break out and tear off on another shorthanded odd-man rush against Washington. While lying on the ice, Ovechkin managed to keep the puck in the zone at the left point. Troy Brouwer collected it and passed to Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom skated toward the net, faked a forehand wrist shot, deftly shook off Jets’ defenseman Tobias Enstrom and then feathered a sublime backhand feed to Brouwer, who roofed it for a 4-3 Washington lead at 4:56.
No one in the building believed that lead was safe, and it lasted all of 128 seconds. Devin Setoguchi’s hit on Backstrom freed the puck in Washington’s end. Andrew Ladd collected it and found Bryan Little lurking in the slot. He fed the center who finished with a high wrister for his second of the night to make it a 4-4 game.
Martin Erat scored the decisive goal in the shootout to enable the Caps to claim two points that will look the same as any other pair in the standings.
“The first period was okay,” says Alzner. “We were fairly happy with that, being on the road. The second period was just ugly. We have to say that conditions weren’t that good out there and it was tough but we were sloppy. We had a couple of bad pinches on the back end. We weren’t finding our guys in the zone, it was almost like we were tired – mentally and physically – which we shouldn’t have been. It was really frustrating to see.”
“It wasn’t our game at all,” says Ovechkin. “We made too many turnovers, too many mistakes at their blueline and in the neutral zone. We got lucky in the shootout. It was big. You can see all the goals they scored, we made our mistakes ourselves.
“Holts made big saves for us. Thank God they didn’t score more. They had lots of opportunities 2-on-1, 3-on-2, breakaways. We can’t give teams chances like that.”
It was ugly, but it was also Washington’s first road win of the season and – coupled with Saturday’s win over Columbus in the District – its first modest winning run of the season.
“It wasn’t our best effort, but we won,” sighs Holtby, who was solved three more times in the shootout. “Put that in the positive category and then we’ll turn it up for the next game.”
Green Parked – Washington played without defenseman Mike Green for the final half of the third period and overtime. There was nothing wrong with the Caps’ defenseman physically, he was just having an off night.
“I didn’t think Greenie was having his best night,” says Oates. “The other guys were going pretty good and it got late in the game and I think [assistant coach] Calle [Johansson] just went with [John Carlson] and [Oleksy] for a couple of shifts.”
Oates also made it clear that he doesn’t see it as a lingering issue.
“It’s just something you feel as a coach in the course of the game, but Greenie is our man,” asserts Oates. “It’s a minor hiccup.”
Green ended up with 18:13 in ice time for the night, well below the 25:20 per night he was averaging going into Tuesday’s game. He skated just 3:32 in the third period, and was parked for the night for the final 9:25 of regulation and all five minutes of overtime.
Shooting Gallery – Holtby faced more shots (47) than he has ever faced in any game in his NHL career and matched his single-game career best for saves (43). Tuesday’s game was the fourth straight in which he has faced at least 30 shots.
In his last six games, Holtby is 3-3 with a 2.33 GAA and a .933 save pct.
Power Outage – Washington’s power play clicked in the clutch, providing the Caps with the go-ahead tally in the third. But the Jets had nearly as many shots on goal (seven) while the Caps were up a man as did Washington (eight) and Winnipeg nicked the Capitals for a shorthanded goal against.
“We were too casual,” says Ovechkin. “We didn’t play at all how we have to play. Yeah we got one goal but we can get three or four goals. We know what we have to do out there. We just didn’t play our way on the PP.”
Little scored the Jets’ first goal while his team was shorthanded, a goal that tied the game at 1-1 at the 7:21 mark of the second period. The Jets had several other stellar scoring chances later in the game while the Caps were a man to the good. Washington had chances of its own as well, but seemed to be dodging too many bullets in its own end of the ice on the power play.
“We saw them a lot last year,” says Brouwer of the Jets. “I think we had good success against them last season and even this year in preseason. They’ve just seen enough of us that they might have caught on to a few things that we were doing, maybe jumping on passes that they anticipated well out there. And then we made a couple poor decisions, which we rarely do but we did tonight, and they cost us a few chances and a goal.”
Washington has allowed two shorthanded goals on the young season, tied with a handful of teams for second most in the league behind Edmonton’s three.
The Capitals are now 11-for-35 (31.4%) with the extra man this season, tops in the NHL.
Pinching Problems – The Caps attributed some of their issues with odd-man rushes in the wrong direction to ill-advised or ill-timed pinches by the Washington defensemen as a result of the quick boards in Winnipeg.
“We talked about it this morning a little bit,” says Oates. “It’s the first time this year where we’ve come to this building or a Canadian rink, and the boards are so much faster. We got caught on our pinches on it. Our third forward was there a couple of times and the [defensemen], we kind of half-pinched and half didn’t and we got caught. We made every mistake you can make, basically, in the course of the game.”
“A lot of it came from pinches,” echoes Alzner. “Pucks were bouncing and it wasn’t easy to keep them flat. You want to play aggressive and you count on certain things to happen all the time like handling the puck and making a certain play and we just weren’t doing that. We weren’t getting a whole lot of puck luck. The same thing happened to them; we were both playing that way. For our aggressive style, that hurt us. We had a lot of 2-on-1s [against]. And that wasn’t good. We haven’t seen a ton of that this year, but there was enough tonight for the first eight games.”
Steve O. Steps Up – With Green planted on the bench for the final half of the final frame plus overtime, Oleksy stepped into the breach and quietly gave the Caps 20:47 worth of work, the first time in 26 regular season games that Oleksy eclipsed the 20-minute mark in a game.
Oleksy finished the night with three shots on net and three hits. He skated 18:26 at even-strength and 2:18 while Washington was down a man. Only Alzner (26:32) and John Carlson (26:19) logged more time than Oleksy among Washington defensemen in Tuesday’s game.
Leading Man – Ovechkin’s nine goals are tops in the NHL. He also leads the circuit with 61 shots on net and is tied for the league lead with four power-play goals.
Helping Hands – Backstrom’s nine assists are tied for fifth in the NHL, one off the league-leading pace of 10. Johansson has eight helpers, tied for eighth in the league.
Long Time Between Leads – When Grant Clitsome’s shot found purchase behind Holtby at 8:31 of the second period, it marked the first time in 208:31 of hockey played between the Caps and Jets at MTS Centre that Winnipeg had owned a lead. Clitsome’s goal gave the Jets a 2-1 advantage.
The last time the Jets led the Caps in Winnipeg before that goal was when the Jets bested the Dale Hunter-coached Caps 3-2 with Tomas Vokoun in goal for Washington on March 16, 2012.
Minutes Men – Three Winnipeg defensemen logged at least 26 minutes of ice time in Tuesday’s game. Zach Bogosian led the Jets with 26:33 followed closely by Byfuglien (26:20) and Enstrom (26:01). Clitsome skated 23:52 to round out the Jets’ overworked top four.
By The Numbers – Washington’s top line of Johansson, Backstrom and Ovechkin combined for 20 of the Caps’ 52 shot attempts on the night and it also accounted for 12 of the team’s 32 shots on net … Ovechkin led the Caps with seven shots on net … Brouwer and Tom Wilson paced Washington with four hits each … Alzner and Ward led the Caps with three blocked shots each … Little won 16 of 23 face-offs (70%).