Going into Thursday’s game against the Minnesota Wild, the Capitals knew they’d have a hard time generating shots and creating offense against the league’s best five-on-five team and the circuit’s stingiest team in terms of average shots on goal allowed per game. As a corollary, the Caps also knew they’d likely need to generate at least one power play goal and that to fall behind the Wild by more than a goal at any juncture would likely lead to a loss.
Washington managed to score the tying goal on its 24th shot on goal of the night – against a Wild team that allowed an average of 23.7 per game coming in – and then it weathered a late Minnesota power play and outlasted the Wild 3-2 in the shootout.
For the Capitals, the victory is their fourth in a row and their fourth in a row on home ice. Washington swept a three-game homestand and now heads west for a rugged set of back-to-back games in Phoenix and Denver, respectively, this weekend.
Washington got on the board first. With Nate Prosser off for cross-checking just prior to the midpoint of the first period, Washington won the ensuing offensive zone draw and neatly worked the puck around.
Marcus Johansson passed from the right half wall to Nicklas Backstrom, who was in Johansson’s customary spot near the goal line, just off the right post. Backstrom slid it sublimely to captain Alex Ovechkin, who one-timed it into a yawning cage from Ovi’s Office to put the Caps up top by a 1-0 count at 8:10 of the first.
With Caps defenseman Mike Green off for hooking late in the first, Minnesota answered with a power-play strike of its own. The Wild worked the puck down the right wing wall and behind the Washington net with a series of quick passes, and Minnesota winger Zach Parise pulled it off the wall and threaded a perfect backhand pass to Charlie Coyle in front. Coyle chipped it home to make it a 1-1 game at 17:51 of the first.
The power play goal came just 20 seconds after Green was seated and is the fastest of the six extra-man tallies the Capitals have surrendered this season.
Washington struggled a bit in its own end early in the second, frequently turning the puck over and failing to clear it when chances to do so presented themselves. The Wild had the Caps chasing the puck a bit in the defensive zone, and was able to get the go-ahead goal just after the six-minute mark of the second.
Nino Niederreiter passed the puck out front to Mikael Granlund, and the Minnesota middle man fired from the slot. Caps goalie Braden Holtby made the save, but Jason Pominville passed it right back to Granlund for a follow-up shot. Granlund’s second-chance shot beat Holtby high to the glove side to make it a 2-1 game at 6:07 of the second.
Both Holtby and Minnesota’s Josh Harding were extremely solid throughout the night, and the Caps were rarely able to get more than a single shot on Harding per offensive zone visit. After two periods of play, Washington trailed 2-1 despite the slightest advantage (34 to 33) in shot attempts to that stage of the game.
In the third, Washington tried to erode a wearying Minnesota defense that had been playing without Clayton Stoner since early in the first period. The Caps’ Aaron Volpatti was given a boarding minor on the play at 2:39 of the first.
Ex-Cap Matt Cooke was whistled for a slashing minor at 12:53 of the third, giving the Caps a golden chance to draw even. Washington’s power play generated some good looks, but could not create the equalizer.
As the clock wound down to nearly three minutes remaining in regulation, Washington possessed the puck in the Minnesota end. Johansson took the puck from teammate Tom Wilson down low in the right wing corner, and curled back out toward the right circle. He pushed the puck toward the net where Brooks Laich was parked just off the left of the crease, and the disc glanced off Prosser and dribbled in to make it a 2-2 game with 3:08 remaining.
“What I like about the tying goal is it took a lot of hard work,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “We fought through a lot of frustration because [the Wild] were giving you nothing. It was hard to get shots to the net. You’re going into territory that’s really difficult. Great little leave by [Wilson], to [Johansson], [Laich] fights around in front. He was there a few times in the shift and we wore them down. Sometimes you have to get goals like that.”
At the time of Johansson’s tally, the Caps owned a 16-8 bulge in third-period shot attempts.
“I thought after that [Cooke penalty],” says Wild coach Mike Yeo, “we did a really good job killing that. But it really put us on our heels, and you could tell that [the Capitals] had to press, and for the majority of the time after that, it seemed like we were hemmed in our end. [The Capitals] were really looking for an opportunity to settle things down when they really got a chance to.”
Caps left wing Martin Erat took an interference minor just after the 19-minute mark of the third, giving the Wild the extra man for the final 57 seconds of regulation and a 4-on-3 advantage for the first 1:03 of overtime.
Holtby and the Washington penalty killers were up to the task, and the Caps managed to squeak the game into overtime to earn the first point. They then outlasted the Wild in the shootout to take away the extra point and their fourth victory in succession.
“We definitely had a few lapses there,” says Caps right wing Joel Ward of the team’s performance earlier in the contest, “[We] just didn’t have that energy there at the start. I think we carried some momentum more and more, and I think guys just started to find themselves better. It was crucial towards the end.
“Holts made some pretty big saves there to at least give us some life and give us a chance to win, and then we were fortunate to do so.”
From the time of Johansson’s tying goal until just after Erat’s minor was killed, Minnesota owned an 8-2 advantage in shot attempts, and it got seven of those shots on net. Holtby and the Caps’ penalty killers were directly responsible for Washington’s fourth straight win.
“Braden made,” begins Laich, “off the top of my head I can think of one, two – he was huge on the PK in overtime – three top-notch saves I patted him on the chest when I was leaving the penalty-kill in overtime. It’s nice to have a goalie that locks it down. It’s really nice.”
Holtby’s Hot Hands – Washington has gotten strong goaltending from Holtby and Michal Neuvirth of late, enabling the Caps to go 8-3 in their last 11 games despite allowing 30 or more shots on goal in each of those contests.
In his last nine starts, Holtby is 7-2 with a shutout, a 2.04 GAA and a .943 save pct. He has seen 30 or more shots in all nine of those starts.
“I like seeing a lot of shots and a lot of play,” says Holtby. “We’re trying to get it down, trying to get consistently more playing time in the offensive zone instead of our d-zone. But if we can keep not giving up too many goals, then I don’t really care how many shots I get.”
Playing against one of the league’s stingiest defensive clubs, Holtby had very little margin for error in Thursday’s game, and he helped the Caps limit the opponent to two or fewer goals for the eighth time in Washington’s last 11 games.
“He made a couple of saves that I was like ‘Wow, incredible,’” exclaims Backstrom, “That’s the way the goalies have been playing the last couple of games. And that’s what we need – start from the backend and all the way through the team.”
Power Tools – For the ninth time in 16 games this season, the Capitals scored at least one power play goal in Thursday’s game. They only had three extra-man chances on the night, and the Caps displayed some excellent puck movement that led to some great looks at the net.
Green hit the post on the Caps’ second power play of the night in the first period and Troy Brouwer rang the iron in the third stanza.
Ovechkin’s power play goal was his seventh extra-man tally of the season, tops in the NHL. Parise is tied for second with five.
With 134 career power-play goals, Ovechkin is now just three behind Peter Bondra for Washington’s all-time franchise lead in that department.
Backstrom now has 11 power play assists on the season, four more than any other player in the league.
Ice Men Cometh – Ovechkin logged 24:28 on the night, his highest single-game total of the season to date and his most ice since he was punched in for 25:57 in a March 30 game against the Sabres in Buffalo.
All four of Washington’s top four blueliners logged 23-plus minutes vs. Minnesota. Green led the way at 25:40 and Carlson was just a tick behind at 25:39. Karl Alzner skated 24:08 and Nate Schmidt – playing in his 12th career NHL contest – logged a single-game career high of 23:53.
All of Schmidt’s minutes came at even-strength; he led the team in even-strength ice time.
Home Cooking Helps – The Minnesota Wild has been in the NHL only since 2000-01, and Thursday night’s meeting with Washington marked only the 13th time the two teams have met during the regular season. Half of the previous 12 meetings between the two teams came between 2000 and 2003.
Nine of the 13 games between the two teams have been decided by a single goal.
For the most part, home teams have had a decided advantage in the series. The Capitals are still seeking their first-ever win at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, and they’ll get their next chance on Jan. 4 when they take to the road to visit Minnesota.
Washington scored just one goal in its first three road games against the Wild, and the Caps have scored seven goals in the six games they’ve played in that barn, going 0-5-1 in the process.
The Wild is now 1-5-1 at Verizon Center. Minnesota had been limited to one or zero goals in each of its previous three visits to Verizon and has now scored a total of 10 goals in the seven games it has played in the District.
Minnesota’s lone win in Washington came nearly 11 years ago, a 4-3 decision on Nov. 21, 2002.
Miserly Minnesota – In addition to the Wild’s aforementioned prowess at limiting opposition shots on goal, Minnesota entered Thursday’s game as the league’s top team in terms of ratio of five-on-five goals for/against (1.92).
Including Thursday’s game against the Caps, the Wild has now allowed just 14 five-on-five goals in its 17 games this season.
In 15 of its 17 games, Minnesota has surrendered two or fewer even-strength goals. The Wild has permitted one or zero even-strength goals in 11 of 17 games in 2013-14.
Getting Their Money’s Worth – Wild defenseman Ryan Suter signed a mega-deal with Minnesota in the summer of 2012. His annual salary cap hit of $7,538,462 is second among all NHL defensemen, trailing only that of former Nashville teammate Shea Weber ($7,857,143).
Suter entered Thursday’s game with a league-leading average of 28:31 in ice time per night, and that average bumped up an entire half-minute to 29:01 in the wake of Suter’s massive 36:51 workload in the game against Washington.
Suter’s ice time figure was the highest for any skater in a regular season NHL game since Dan Boyle – then with the Tampa Bay Lightning – logged 37:03 against Boston on Feb. 23, 2008 in a game that did not even go to overtime.
By The Numbers – Laich’s assist on Johansson’s game-tying goal was his first of the season … Ovechkin led the Caps with five shots on goal … Washington was 3-for-11 (27%) in special teams face-offs in the game … Including Thursday’s game, the Wild is now 27-1-4 in games in which it has led after 40 minutes, since the start of the 2012-13 season.