Over the last few seasons, games between the Capitals and the Detroit Red Wings have been low-scoring and close contests. None of the last six meetings between the two teams featured a combined total of more than four goals.
It was somewhat surprising to see the two sides combine for four goals in the first frame alone on Thursday night at Verizon Center, and in the end, the Caps and Wings combined for nine goals, or as many as they had combined to score in their previous four meetings.
The Caps netted the lion’s share of those tallies, downing Detroit by a 6-3 count to run their home winning streak to 11 straight. Washington has won five in a row overall.
“Real good response by our guys,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “Detroit is obviously extremely desperate, and they’ve been playing very, very well. I think they’ve got points in [nine] of their last 11 games.
However, the Caps’ victory came at a cost. Winger Andre Burakovsky suffered a hand injury when he blocked a Brendan Smith shot late in the first period. Caps coach Barry Trotz said Burakovsky would “miss some time,” and that he’d likely have further information on Friday morning.
“It was a strange game,” says Caps goalie Braden Holtby, who made 14 saves in earning his 28
th victory of the season. “The last few [against the Wings] have been pretty tight; a lot of forechecking and that type of thing.
“It seemed like we had a lot of [offensive] zone time and then they would get odd man rushes, and that was it. It was just one of those games where we had to stick with it, stick with our mindset of grinding it out down low, and in the end it won us the game.”
Washington scored first, doing so for the 40
th time in 55 games this season at 5:57 of the first. Evgeny Kuznetsov and linemates Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson (with some aid from blueliners Brooks Orpik and Nate Schmidt) did a great job of keeping the puck alive in the Detroit zone without seeming to have full possession. Eventually, Kuznetsov was able to swat it to Johansson, who potted it to put the Caps on top.
“It was kind of bouncing around there for a while,” recounts Johansson. “We had a lucky play to keep it in the zone there, and then [Williams] made a great play to get it to [Kuznetsov]. That’s the way it goes sometimes, but I think that’s where hard work pays off. If you don’t quit on it, you can get those kind of breaks and we did.”
Detroit answered back several minutes later, getting an Andreas Athanasiou goal from the slot seconds after the two sides returned to even strength after a couple of minutes of four-on-four hockey.
With Nicklas Backstrom in the box for boarding Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, Athanasiou scored his second of the night on the power play to lift the Wings to a 2-1 lead at 16:23.
The Caps got that one back in short order, tying the tilt at 2-2 when Brett Connolly neatly tucked the rebound of a Lars Eller shot into the Wings cage from a difficult angle along the goal line at 18:30.
T.J. Oshie restored the Washington lead at 3-2 in the second minute of the second frame, taking a nifty indirect pass from John Carlson and firing a shot past Wings goalie Petr Mrazek on the far side at the 1:16 mark.
Early in the third, the Wings pulled even again. Henrik Zetterberg took a feed from Anthony Mantha and carved in alone on Caps goalie Braden Holtby. Zetterberg waited Holtby out, then beat him with a late backhander to the short side to make it a 3-3 game at 1:25.
Once again, the Capitals issued a prompt reply. Jay Beagle’s line turned in a beastly shift in the offensive zone, hemming the Wings in their own end and making them work and chase. As the Caps slowly changed personnel, they managed to maintain possession in the zone as well. A fresh Oshie finally forced a turnover, and he fed Carlson for a one-time blast that eluded Mrazek at 4:15.
“It’s a huge momentum swing the wrong way,” laments Wings coach Jeff Blashill of the Carlson goal at that juncture of the contest. “Obviously we could have gained momentum with the third goal there and put ourselves back in the mix. And then we got hemmed in our zone, had opportunities to get rid of the puck and out of the zone and we just didn’t. We weren’t able to do it.”
The Wings, in a desperate drive for a 26
th consecutive Stanley Cup playoff berth, kept vying for the equalizer, and the Caps were effective at limiting their looks at the net. When Beagle drew a tripping call on Smith at 13:34, it gave Washington its first power play of the night and a chance to administer the death blow.
Backstrom and Oshie combined to do exactly that, the former putting it on a tee and the latter putting it into a teacup, just inside the junction of the crossbar and the left post. Oshie’s second goal of the game gave the Caps a safer two-goal lead with less than six minutes remaining, and a late empty-netter from Backstrom removed all doubt and accounted for the 6-3 final.
“I didn’t think we played good enough,” says Blashill. “I don’t think it’s a recipe for long term success. I think we took real steps forward playing a smart game in Nashville, playing a smart game against Columbus and playing extraordinarily hard against Columbus.
“Tonight, we had way too many turnovers when we didn’t need to and we had way too many stick-checks. We didn’t have enough want in one-on-one battles.”
The Wings continue on a difficult three-game road trip; they travel to Columbus and then Minnesota to play a set of back-to-backs on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
As for the Caps, they’ll try to make it a dozen straight at Verizon Center on Saturday night when the Anaheim Ducks hit town. After that one, the Caps will take a richly deserved five-day break for their “bye week.”