Washington ended an inopportune five-game slide and a two-week drought between wins on Saturday when it prevailed by a 4-3 count over the New York Islanders in a game that was decided by a shootout. The Caps have squandered more than their fair share of two-goal leads this season, but this time Washington rebounded from a two-goal deficit to take a pair of points in Saturday afternoon’s game on Long Island.
Less than 24 hours after a taxing 2-1 loss to Devils, the Caps had their hands full with the upstart Islanders early in the game, but Washington netminder Braden Holtby kept the game close until his team could get its offense on track. Although the Capitals certainly played a better hockey game on Friday in New Jersey, the result was much better in Saturday’s game.
“We definitely played better [Friday] night,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “It was a lot sloppier tonight. I think fatigue was a factor. Not even a whole day’s rest and [the Islanders] had two days off. They’re a good skating team. It was sloppy, but if anything I thought our third period was probably the best in terms of limiting chances.”
Although puck possession was fairly even into the second half of the first frame, the Islanders had the better of the game’s early chances and New York was first to light the lamp.
Islanders speed merchant Michael Grabner dumped the puck into the Washington zone, and linemate Casey Cizikas got behind the Caps net to retrieve it before defenseman Tyson Strachan. Cizikas threw a nifty backhand feed to the front, where Cal Clutterbuck had cruised into the slot. Clutterbuck had enough time and space to fire it past Caps goalie Braden Holtby for a 1-0 New York lead.
Washington went on a power play less than a minute later, but it was the Isles who had the best scoring opportunity during that two-minute stretch. Clutterbuck tore off on a shorthanded breakaway, and a great save from Holtby was required to keep the Caps within a goal of their hosts.
Holtby held firm in the waning minutes of the period as well, weathering a battery of shots as the Islanders enjoyed their first power play of the game.
The Caps pulled even early in the second period on a pretty – if inadvertent – passing play involving a pair of new – and temporary – linemates. Evgeny Kuznetsov made a cross-crease pass to Marcus Johansson, and Johansson fired wildly. The shot missed the net and went directly back from whence it came, to Kuznetsov’s tape. Kuznetsov was able to beat Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov to make it a 1-1 contest.
“Kuzy passed it really hard and there was a guy between us,” explains Johansson. “I didn’t quite see the puck and I just took a swing at it. I hit it off the heel of my stick and it went right back to him. I said, ‘Oops!’ when I hit it but it turned out good.”
But as we’ve seen more than a few times this season, the Caps sometimes struggle in the wake of offensive prosperity. The Isles needed only 100 seconds to regain the lead. John Persson’s backhander off the rush beat Holtby for the former’s first NHL goal to restore the New York advantage at 4:16 of the second.
The Islanders padded that advantage on the power play at 9:55, making it a 3-1 game. With Caps captain Alex Ovechkin in the box for finishing his check (it went down as “roughing” on the scoresheet) Frans Nielsen blasted a one-timer from the right dot into the net after Josh Bailey teed it up nicely for him.
Washington halved New York’s two-goal advantage when Backstrom notched his 15th goal of the season, doing so less than three minutes after Nielsen’s goal. John Carlson gave Ovechkin a terrific pass, but the latter fanned on a shot with Nabokov down and out of the net, then fired again. The second effort went wide and hit Isles defenseman Calvin de Haan – already hobbled and struggling to get back into the play – in the chest. Backstrom calmly collected the rebound and potted it while the New York cage was still vacant.
Near the middle of the second period, Oates tweaked three of his four forward lines. Johansson moved to the middle of the line with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, and the trio combined on the tying tally on its second shift as a unit.
Johansson saucered a pass to Chimera, who directed the puck towards Nabokov. The goaltender made the save, and then the puck pinballed around in front. It came directly to Ward, who drilled it home. Ward’s 23rd of the season made it a 3-3 game at 15:01 of the second.
“I saw Chimmer going through,” says Johansson, “he had a lot of speed and I think the puck hit his skates. And then all three of us just followed up on the play. Sometimes that’s what you need to do to score the goals. And then Wardo was in the right spot at the right time.”
Both teams tightened up in the third, and the Caps won it after the overtime session ended.
“It was lots of back and forth,” says Backstrom. “We played good five minutes and [the Islanders] played good five minutes. So it was lots of momentum changes. But overall we’re happy with two points. I think Holtby played great back there and really got us this one.”
Busy In The Back – Holtby faced 38 shots in the game, stopping 35 to earn his 21 victory of the season. In the last seven Holtby starts in which he has also finished the game, he has faced at least 34 shots in all of them.
“They pressured hard all night,” says Holtby of the Islanders. “It was really impressive, actually. They didn’t give us much time and space in our own end. We stuck with it, though, and we battled through. A lot of simple plays that our [defensemen] had to make were made very difficult for them and I thought our [defensemen] did a good job as the game went on. We came out with the win.”
Holtby has been the winning goaltender in each of the Caps’ last two victories for the first time since he reeled off four straight wins for Washington from Feb. 6-March 1.
“I thought he was good early,” says Oates of his goaltender. “Obviously in the second, [there were] a couple of shaky [goals against]. But then he was great in the third and great in the shootout.”
Road Kill – Nielsen’s second-period power-play goal was the first extra-man tally scored on the road against Washington in a month. Prior to Nielsen’s tally, the Caps had a string of 20 straight successful penalty-killing missions on the road, dating back to March 5 against the Flyers in Philadelphia.
Back In The Saddle – Caps left wing Aaron Volpatti was back in the lineup for the first time in more than two months, since a Feb. 2 game against the Red Wings at Verizon Center. Volpatti had been sidelined with an upper body since suffering that ailment in the game against Detroit.
He skated 9:22 in his return to the lineup, issuing three hits and getting one of his four shot attempts on net. Volpatti also drew an interference call on New York’s Matt Carkner.
Men Down – Left wing Dustin Penner missed Saturday’s game with an upper body injury, enabling Volpatti to draw back in. The game was the first Penner has missed since joining the Caps in a March 4 trade with Anaheim.
Caps defenseman Mike Green left the game after the first period with what the team is calling an upper body injury. Oates said after the game that Green would be evaluated further on Monday by the team’s medical staff.
The Caps are off on Sunday; they’ll depart for the season’s final road trip (to St. Louis and Carolina) on Monday afternoon.
Tragic Number – The Caps’ tragic number remained at six after Saturday’s NHL action. Any combination of points not gained by Washington and/or gained by the team in the second wild card slot that adds up to six will eliminate the Capitals from a chance to compete in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Although it remains in 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings, Washington did manage to gain control of its own destiny over one of the four teams with which it is competing for the final wild card berth. Although the Caps trail 10th place Toronto by one point, they have four games left to three for the Maple Leafs.
“I think the only thing we can worry about is ourselves,” notes Backstrom. “We’ve got to try to win all the games that we have left. We can’t control anything else. Whatever happens with other teams – whether they won or lose – we can’t control it. We might as well just focus on us.”
Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears continued their road trip through New England on Saturday when they visited the Sharks in Worcester. Hershey nursed a 2-1 lead into the third period, only to lose it in the final minute of regulation. But the Bears overcame that speed hump and earned a 3-2 victory in overtime, thanks to Casey Wellman’s goal at 2:49 of the extra session.
After Worcester opened the scoring in the second period, rookie Caleb Herbert scored his second pro goal in as many pro games to tie the game at 1-1. David Kolomatis and Jeff Taffe assisted on the Herbert goal.
Some four minutes after Herbert’s goal, the Bears jumped out to a 2-1 lead. Hershey defenseman Chay Genoway tallied at 12:22 of the middle frame with help from Kris Newbury and Bears captain Dane Byers.
Dan DaSilva evened the game at 2-2 in the game’s final minute, but Wellman ensured two points for the Bears with his 17th goal of the season. Byers contributed with his second helper of the game, the lone assist on the game-winner.
Bears goaltender Philipp Grubauer made 33 saves to run his record to 12-11-2-1 on the season.
With seven games remaining in the season, Hershey is in ninth place in the AHL’s Eastern Conference standings, one point behind eighth-place Norfolk.
Hershey travels to Bridgeport next; the Bears have a Sunday matinee date with the Sound Tigers.
Down a level, the ECHL Reading Royals hosted the Kalamazoo Wings for a second straight night at Santander Arena in Reading, and for a second straight night the Royals triumphed.
Royals defensemen Marvin Degon and Mike Banwell scored to support the joint goaltending efforts of Riley Gill (six saves on six shots in 20 minutes) and Brandon Anderson (15 saves on 16 shots in 40 minutes) as Reading edged Kalamazoo by a 2-1 score.
Anderson (24-9-1-0) received credit for the victory, his second in as many nights.
With three games remaining in the regular season, the 45-21-2-1 Royals have clinched the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Reading has 93 points and is still vying with Western Conference denizens Alaska (94 points) and Ontario (93) for the best record in the circuit.
By The Numbers – Carlson paced Washington with 30:07 in ice time and four blocked shots … Backstrom’s five shots on net were tops among all Capitals … Ovechkin squeezed off a team-high 14 shot attempts but managed to get just four of them on net … Strachan logged 24:15 in the game, second among all Washington defensemen in the game and his highest total since he logged 21:43 in his Capitals debut on Nov. 15 against the Red Wings in Detroit … Julien Brouillette paced the Caps with five hits … Travis Hamonic led the Islanders with 28:04 of ice time and six blocked shots … Clutterbuck led New York with seven shots on net … Matt Martin led the Islanders with eight hits … Brock Nelson won seven of 10 draws (70%) in the game.