Facing one of the elite teams of the NHL’s Western Conference and facing elimination from contention for a Stanley Cup playoff berth, the Washington Capitals managed to keep their faint playoff hopes flickering with a 4-1 win over the Blues in St. Louis on Tuesday night.
“We talked this morning about how all we can do is control our own situation,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “Try and focus on tonight, let’s get a win and see what happens tomorrow. The guys showed up to play and we played hard. I’m happy for them to get the win.”
Starting consecutive contests for the first time in more than a month, Caps goaltender Braden Holtby stopped 28 of the 29 shots he faced on the night to forge his second 4-1 win over the Blues this season.
The Caps struck first late in the first, getting an Alex Ovechkin power-play goal at the 17:54 mark to forge a 1-0 lead. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s bid at a cross-ice pass through traffic failed, caroming off Joel Ward in the diamond slot and kicking back out to John Carlson at center point. Carlson put it on a tee for Ovechkin who put it into a teacup right under the bar and over the left shoulder of Blues goaltender Ryan Miller.
Washington began to struggle a bit in its own end late in the first frame, and that tendency carried into the second. St. Louis pulled even after the Caps spent a long shift in their own end against St. Louis’ fourth line, chasing the Blues and the puck. Caps forward Marcus Johansson lost his stick, adding to Washington’s woes. Unable to clear the zone, the Caps were also unable to clear the front of the cage and Maxim Lapierre was able to put back a rebound at 2:39 to make it a 1-1 game.
Less than five minutes later, another struggling shift in their own end turned troublesome for the Caps. Kuznetsov was whistled for a pair of simultaneous minor penalties after the Capitals had been hemmed in their own end for a spell, and the Blues were able to play keep away on the delayed penalty call for the better part of a minute, much to the delight of the crowd.
The Caps were able to weather that storm, but they were then faced with a four-minute penalty-killing mission as well. While in the process of killing that penalty, Washington winger Troy Brouwer made what turned out to be a crucial play in the outcome of the contest. He tore off on a shorthanded breakaway, drawing a slashing call on Blues blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk just 39 seconds after Kuznetsov had been seated in the penalty box.
With the two teams each having four skaters for a two-minute stretch, the Caps took off on a rush out of their own end. Mikhail Grabovski gained the zone and skated toward the left circle. He tried to launch a shot, but the puck wasn’t securely on his blade. He was able to retain possession, and he circled and went back to the left dot. From there, Grabovski wound up and fired a slapshot that beat Miller high to the short side, giving the Caps a 2-1 lead they would not relinquish.
Brouwer’s ability to draw that slashing call on Shattenkirk changed the complexion of the game.
“Huge play,” says Oates. “It could have maybe even almost been a penalty shot. But to get the penalty when you’re four minutes [shorthanded] killed two minutes of that and kind of disrupted their [power play]. Absolutely huge play, and Grabo scores on [the 4-on-4]. Excellent.”
Late in the second period, the Capitals added a critical insurance tally. Ovechkin threaded a perfect pass to Nicklas Backstrom, who fired and scored to increase Washington’s lead to 3-1 with just 1:10 remaining in the middle frame.
“I got the puck in the neutral zone to him,” says Backstrom. “I knew he was going to give it back to me at the blueline there. It was a great pass.”
Early in the third period, Backstrom scored on a Washington power play – his second goal in a span of just 86 seconds of game time – to give the Caps a comfortable 4-1 cushion. The Caps and Holtby held the fort the rest of the way to usher home the goaltender’s 22nd victory of the season.
“The first 10 [minutes] were huge,” says Holtby. “Obviously the last 10 [minutes] of the first weren’t as great but against a team like St. Louis you’ve got to expect that. They’re going to have their waves as well. We got fortunate in some places; a broken stick on a wide open shot and a few others where they just missed, but I think that was a credit to us pressuring them on those scoring chances. It’s a game of those little things and tonight we did a better job of that and got a win from it.”
“Holts played great, good for him,” says Oates. “He’s played good lately and he had a great game for us all around.”
Fifth Fifty – Ovechkin’s first-period goal was his 50th of the season. He has now reached the 50-goal plateau five times in his nine-year NHL career and he has done so for the first time since 2009-10.
“We talk about him so much and he’s in the limelight so much,” says Oates of Ovechkin. “He got [three points] tonight, and a huge goal, a goal out of nowhere on the play. That particular power play we didn’t have much going on. It goes to show you what a weapon he is. That’s part of our team in terms of it got us going in a game on the road. It’s huge.”
Only five players have more 50-goal seasons in the NHL than Ovechkin. All are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame: Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky (nine each), Marcel Dionne, Guy Lafleur and Mario Lemieux (six each).
Ovechkin is now tied with five other Hockey Hall of Famers, each of whom recorded five 50-goal seasons during his NHL career: Pavel Bure, Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull, Brett Hull and Steve Yzerman.
“It means a lot,” says the Caps’ captain. “It’s a big number. It’s going to be in history for my whole life. I’m pretty sure my family is happy and the guys are happy for me. I appreciate all the players who gave me opportunities and coaches to be in that position.”
Power Surge – Ovechkin’s goal came on the power play, his 23rd power-play goal of the season. That’s a Capitals single-season franchise record for power play goals in a season, one more than Peter Bondra (2000-01) and Ovechkin (2007-08) had as the previous record holders in that category.
Dead Heat – With 79 of the season’s 82 games in the books, Ovechkin and Backstrom are tied for the team scoring lead with 77 points each. Ovechkin has 50 goals and 27 assists while Backstrom has 17 goals and 60 assists.
Ovechkin has been Washington’s leading scorer in each of his first eight seasons in the NHL.
Holting Up His End – Since a difficult start against the Wild in Minnesota on Jan. 4 in which he surrendered five goals on just 11 shots and admitted that his confidence was sagging, Holtby has played well for Washington in somewhat limited duty.
Since that Jan. 4 game against the Wild, Holtby has appeared in 18 of Washington’s 37 games, and he has drawn 15 starting assignments. Although his 2.72 GAA and his .914 save pct. over that span are better than his numbers over the entire season (2.94, .912), they’re just a shade under what the rest of Washington’s goaltenders have combined for over those same 37 games (2.67, .918).
But when it comes to the stat that matters the most (wins), Holtby is out in front. He has posted a 9-4-1 record since Jan. 4 while the trio of Philipp Grubauer, Michal Neuvirth and Jaroslav Halak is just 7-10-6 in its 22 starts.
On the season, Holtby is 22-15-3 in 43 starts while the other three goaltenders have combined for a 14-15-10 mark in 36 starts.
Holtby also collected an assist on Grabovski’s goal in Tuesday’s game. Holtby has two assists this season and five during his NHL career.
Long Time Coming – Grabovski’s goal in the second period ended a lengthy scoring drought for the Caps forward, who was injured for a significant portion of the second half of the season.
Grabovski’s goal on Tuesday was his first in a span of 14 games, dating back to a Jan. 9 tally against the Lightning in Tampa Bay. His goal against the Blues was Grabovski’s first at even-strength since a Dec. 23 goal against the Anaheim Ducks at Verizon Center.
Double Down – Each of the last five games in which Washington has scored a power play goal, it has scored two of them.
Road Kill – Washington has killed off 25 of its last 26 shorthanded situations on the road. The Caps have allowed just one shorthanded goal in their last nine road games dating back to March 6.
Blues Beaters – The same Caps who dominated the scoresheet in Washington’s 4-1 win over the Blues at Verizon Center on Nov. 17 were the ones who spearheaded the team’s attack in Tuesday night’s win.
Ovechkin had two goals in the Nov. 17 game and he had a goal and two assists on Tuesday. Backstrom had three assists in the November game and two goals in Tuesday’s triumph. Grabovski scored a goal in each of the two games against the Blues while Carlson contributed a goal in the game at Washington and two assists in the game in St. Louis.
Under Siege – St. Louis dominated possession – and most other facets of the game – though some of that dominance was because of score effects. The Blues teed up a total of 80 shot attempts in the game to just 32 for the Capitals.
The Blues also owned Washington in the face-off circle, winning 42 of the game’s 58 draws for a whopping 72% circle success rate. The Capitals won only one of eight face-offs while on the power play.
Washington blocked more shots (26) than it got on the St. Louis net (22).
The Blues also outhit the Capitals 23-10 in Tuesday’s tilt.
Three Down – Tuesday’s loss leaves St. Louis with its first three-game losing streak of the season and its first in more than a year. The last time the Blues lost three games in succession was March 24-28, 2013.
By The Numbers – Carlson’s 26:35 in ice time paced the Capitals … Backstrom led Washington with six shots on net; both he and Carlson led the way with six shot attempts … Backstrom’s two-goal game was his second of the season and his first since Nov. 1 against the Flyers in Philadelphia … Karl Alzner led the Capitals with six blocked shots in the game … St. Louis forwards Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Steen combined for 14 shot attempts in the game, but they combined for just two shots on net, both off Steen’s stick.