Heading into the final month of the NHL season, the Washington Capitals face a most difficult slate of teams in their final 15 contests. No offense to the Vancouver Canucks, who were one of the mightier Western Conference clubs over the last half decade, but the Canucks presented – on paper, anyway – one of the lesser challenges the Capitals would face in the season’s final 31 days.
Winners of just seven of their previous 28 games, the Canucks were Washington’s Friday night opponent at Verizon Center. The Caps – winners of just 10 of their previous 29 – needed this one badly. And Washington got it, although the victory wasn’t at all pretty.
The Caps did more surviving than thriving in this one.
Mike Green’s third-period goal broke a 3-3 tie and lifted the Caps to a 4-3 win over the Canucks, who had stormed back from a 3-1 deficit at the start of the third period to draw even at 3-3.
“We had a 3-1 lead,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “They tie it up, [Caps goalie Jaroslav Halak] made a couple big saves and then we got it done. We figured out a way to get it done. It wasn’t a great night. Some great moments in that game, but it wasn’t a great hockey game for us. But we figured out a way to get it done, which was good.”
Halak was excellent, and he had to be. The Canucks fired 41 shots his way.
“He played fantastic tonight," says Oates of the Caps' goaltender. "We left him hanging.”
Washington came into Friday night’s contest with only one win in its previous six games (1-4-1), and the Capitals had owned a lead for only 5:13 of the previous 300 minutes of hockey they had played. But the Caps managed to get the jump on the Canucks and get on the scoreboard first.
Jason Chimera drove down the left wing wall with speed, and he made a terrific lateral pass to Eric Fehr in the slot. Fehr’s shot missed wide to the right, but Fehr collected the puck and flung it to the front. Joel Ward took a baseball-style swing and got a piece of the puck, but it landed at his feet. From there he was able to outmuscle Canucks defenseman Jason Garrison and nudge it home for a 1-0 Washington lead at 8:17.
The Capitals’ lead was short-lived. Jay Beagle was whistled for tripping just 49 seconds after the Ward goal, and the Capitals managed to kill off that minor. But only 3:24 after the Caps took the lead, Vancouver drew even.
Alex Ovechkin’s errant pass at the Vancouver line was picked off and the Canucks transitioned their way into the Caps’ zone. Seconds later, the puck came to the slot, and Caps defenseman Mike Green briefly had it on his stick. But he couldn’t corral it, and Ovechkin collided with Beagle as they went for it. Canucks winger Zack Kassian grabbed it in the left wing corner and fed a perfect backhand pass to the front for Jordan Schroeder. Schroeder wristed it over Halak’s left shoulder to make it a 1-1 game at 11:41.
The Caps killed off an Ovechkin slashing call and failed to score on a power play of their own late in the frame.
In the second, the Caps forged their two-goal lead. Tom Wilson drew a hooking call on Vancouver’s Tom Sestito at 7:02, and Washington made the Canucks pay on the ensuing power play. Ovechkin scored on a one-timer from his office at the left dot to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead at 8:28, with John Carlson setting it right on the tee for the Caps captain.
Washington added to its lead about four minutes later on a nifty play that involved all five Caps’ skaters touching the puck and moving it quickly up ice, from their own end to the back of Vancouver net. Green made a pass to partner Jack Hillen in the Washington end, and HIllen bumped the puck to neutral ice for Beagle. He fed Kuznetsov along the left wing wall at the Washington line. Kuzentsov skated into the Canucks’ zone and to the top of the circle. He wound up as if to let a slapshot fly, but instead fired a laser-sharp cross-ice slap pass to right wing Tom Wilson. Wilson settled the puck and sniped it short side over the shoulder of Vancouver netminder Eddie Lack.
“He is such a creative player, a lot of fun to play with,” says Wilson of Kuznetsov. “The first couple of games he wasn’t sure, and he’s really finding his groove. Hopefully we can have some good chemistry for years to come. [Beagle] is always hardworking; you know he’s going to bring that. He’s going through the middle on that goal that I scored. He started it, drove through the middle, opened that space up for me and [Evgeny Kuznetsov] made a great pass. It’s really fun to have a little bit of skill, a lot of hard work and it’s been fun.”
Holding the dreaded two-goal lead, Washington spent the third period trying to fend off a furious and relentless Vancouver attack. The Canucks struck twice in the first half of the third to make it a 3-3 game.
Shawn Matthias made it 3-2 at 4:28, scoring off the rush. Just over three minutes later, Nicklas Jensen netted the first goal of his NHL career. Both goals beat Halak low to the blocker side, and both came with primary assists from Chris Higgins and secondary helpers from Christopher Tanev.
The Canucks’ two third-period goals came during a 7:10 stretch in which Vancouver outshot the Caps 9-0 and had 13 shot attempts to none for Washington.
Washington was outshot by a lopsided 17-3 in the third period, but the Caps managed to get one of those three shots behind Lack. That happened at 10:19 after the makeshift trio of Kuznetsov, Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom worked the cycle in the Vancouver end before Backstrom fed Green for what would prove to be the game-winning goal on a wrist shot from the top of the right circle.
“[Kuznetsov] did a great job battling down the corner and keeping control of the puck,” says Green. “He made a great play to Nicky and I noticed when Nicky was wheeling the net that he saw me before he even looked up. That’s just the way Nick operates, so I just had to freeze the goalie and get a good shot.”
Green’s shot was the first shot on goal of the period for the Capitals. It turned out to be the 18th game-winning goal of the defenseman’s career.
The Caps were tasked with a critical penalty-killing mission when Backstrom was hauled away for holding at 13:38. Washington bent but did not break; spending most of the two minutes in its own end of the ice, dodging missiles.
Over the final 6:58 of play, Vancouver outshot the Caps 7-0 and had all 17 shot attempts in the game during that span. Washington laid out to block eight of those 17 shot tries during that span, with Carlson and partner Karl Alzner each blocking three shots in that stretch.
Washington white-knuckled its way through the third period for a much-needed victory, but Oates thought the trouble actually started in the second for the Caps.
“We talked before the [third] period,” says Oates. “We had a 3-1 lead, but we didn’t deserve it. Yeah, we got a power-play goal, which was big. And then we got the third goal, which was a nice one. But the first 10 minutes of the second period we gave it away seven times. We left [Halak] hanging. I said it going [into the third], ‘Let’s not kid ourselves. That was not a good period.’”
The Capitals were charged with 16 giveaways on the night to just seven for the Canucks.
“We played well,” says Canucks coach John Tortorella. “We came away empty. No regulation points. It’s a frustrating one for us because I thought a lot of people did a lot of good things.”
Threes Are Wild – Playing in just his third NHL game, Kuznetsov notched three assists to record the first three points of his NHL career. He did so by assisting on each of Washington’s last three goals of the game.
In doing so, he became the first Caps rookie to have three assists in a game since Backstrom had three helpers on March 3, 2008 in a 10-2 Washington win over the Boston Bruins at Verizon Center. That was the third time that season that Backstrom notched as many as three helpers in a game.
Kuznetsov is the first NHL player to record as many as three assists in one of his first three games in the league since the Los Angeles Kings’ Anze Kopitar had three helpers in his second NHL game on Oct. 7, 2006 against St. Louis.
Secondary Modern – Washington hasn’t had much in the way of even-strength scoring from its top six forwards of late, and that was the case once again in Friday’s game. The Caps’ third line scored the first even-strength goal of the game, the fourth line netted the second, and two-thirds of the fourth line was on for the game-winner.
Helping Hands – Chimera and Carlson both continue to have helping hands for the Capitals. Chimera’s helper on Ward’s goal was the veteran winger’s sixth assist in his last eight games. He has a single-season career best total of 23 on the season.
Carlson recorded his 20th assist of the season and his seventh in the last nine games on Ovechkin’s power-play goal in the second period.
Laich Ailing – Caps forward Brooks Laich, trying to play through a lower body injury that has plagued him for more than a year now, re-injured himself on the play in which Matthias scored to make it a 3-2 game in the third period. Laich was far out of the play and had difficulty getting back up ice on the sequence.
“That second goal in the third, he was laboring coming back,” admits Oates. “I talked to him and I asked him to give us everything he had and he did. I really, really appreciate what he did for us, but I didn’t want to play him after that.”
Oates didn’t want to play Laich after that, but he relented. Laich had one even-strength and one penalty killing shift the rest of the way.
“But next penalty he still went out there for the penalty kill,” relates Oates. “He looked at me and said, ‘I can kill.’ And I said, ‘Great.’
“Penalty killing is not really skating; it’s positioning and your mind. It was a huge kill for us, obviously.”
The Caps spent almost the entire two minutes of that penalty-killing mission trying to fend off the Canucks, who teed up eight shot attempts during that man advantage opportunity. Only two of those shots found their way to Halak; four were blocked and two missed the net.
Laich was on the ice for the first 49 seconds of that shift; he managed to get to the bench for a change when Washington lobbed the puck out to neutral ice just before the midpoint of the kill.
Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears visited division rival Syracuse in upstate New York on Friday night, and the Bears were handed a 3-2 overtime defeat.
Chris Brown netted his 15th goal of the season – and first as a member of the Bears – on a power play in the first period with help from fellow newcomer Kris Newbury and Hershey captain Dane Byers. That goal staked the visitors to a 1-0 lead.
The Crunch scored once in the first and once in the second to take a 2-1 lead into the third. Matt Watkins notched his 10th goal of the season at 9:13 of the final frame to make it a 2-2 game, getting help from David Kolomatis and Byers.
Former Bear Jon DiSalvatore scored at 1:50 of the extra session to win it for the Crunch. Bears goaltender Philipp Grubauer made 34 saves in a losing effort.
The 30-22-4-4 Bears are in ninth place in the AHL’s Eastern Conference standings, two points behind eighth-place Albany for the final Calder Cup playoff berth in the conference.
The Bears host Adirondack on Saturday and Norfolk on Sunday at Giant Center.
Down a level, the ECHL Reading Royals suffered a 5-1 thumping at the hands of the Nailers in Wheeling on Friday night. Ryan Cruthers scored the Royals’ lone goal and Riley Gill was chased from the Reading nets after allowing four goals on just a dozen shots. Brandon Anderson finished up in relief, stopping 15 of the 16 shots sent in his direction.
Reading returns home to host Elmira on Saturday night and it entertains Wheeling in a rematch on Sunday at Santander Arena.
The 37-20-1-1 Royals maintain a 10-point cushion over second-place Wheeling in the ECHL’s Atlantic Division. The Royals are just a point behind the Kalamazoo Wings for the best record in the ECHL’s Eastern Conference.
By The Numbers – In 18 of Washington’s last 21 games, the team that has scored the game’s first goal has won the hockey game (18-1-2)… More than half (25 of 49) of the Capitals’ shot attempts in the game came in the first period. Vancouver had 51 shot tries to just 24 for the Caps over the game’s final 40 minutes … Washington won 35 of the game’s 58 face-offs (60%), led by Backstrom’s 13 of 14 (93%) … Alzner led the Caps in ice time (25:09) and blocked shots (five) in the game … Ovechkin, Wilson, Green and Marcus Johansson each had three shots on goal to lead the Capitals … Troy Brouwer led the Caps with five hits … a dozen different Washington skaters blocked at least one shot in the game … Kevin Bieksa led the Canucks with six hits.