Steering Into The Skid – Roads all around the DMV region were slippery, wet and very conducive to skidding and sliding on Tuesday morning after an overnight storm unleashed shovel-worthy amounts of snow and some ice and sleet in the area. By late Tuesday evening, the Washington Capitals – in a slide of their own for the last week – steered their way out of a four-game skid with a satisfying 4-2 win over the fun and exciting-to-watch yet slumping Minnesota Wild at Verizon Center.
Both the Caps and the Wild entered Tuesday’s game atop their respective conferences, but both also went in with their respective divisional leads in peril. The Caps were even with Pittsburgh at 95 points for the Metro Division lead, but owning the top spot in the standings because of a 43-40 lead over the Penguins in regulation/overtime victories. And the Wild owned a narrow 92-91 lead over Chicago for the catbird’s seat in the Central Division.
Nate Schmidt’s goal in the final seconds of the first staked the Caps to a 1-0 lead, and Washington added two more in the second to take a three-goal lead into the third period. Alex Ovechkin scored the first of those second-period markers just one tick after the expiration of a Washington power play, and Evgeny Kuznetsov netted the other on a power play as the Wild took four minor penalties in the second.
The Caps had to hold on in the third when Minnesota pulled to within a goal after a spate of Washington penalties, but Jay Beagle’s goal with 5:41 left gave the Caps some breathing room, and they ushered the win home from there.
“It was poetic justice, if you will,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We had a couple of big penalty kills right after they scored, and got it close to tied up. We got a couple of saves and guys were doing a lot of legwork on the penalty kill.
“Beags gets a goal off the regroup with a little bit of a bad change by them, and it gave us some breathing room again.”
Stars Come Out To Play – There were a couple of games on the recent California trip in which the opposition’s top stars were more impactful than Washington’s, but the Caps turned those tables on the Wild on Tuesday.
Nicklas Backstrom had three assists, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov scored, and Braden Holtby outdueled Devan Dubnyk in the battle between two prominent Vezina Trophy contenders.
“I trust this group and they responded,” says Trotz. “We had some really strong performances. Backy’s line was real strong, and Kuzy’s line was good.”
Backstrom reached the 70-point mark for the sixth time in his career and the 50-assist mark for the seventh time. This is the fourth straight season in which he has reached both of those milestones.
Ovechkin’s goal was his first in 11 games and his first five-on-five goal in 20 games, ending career-high droughts on both counts. And Holtby’s 32-save efforts ended a personal three-game losing streak, a bit of adversity he hadn’t been faced with in more than two years. Holtby has never lost four straight decisions during the course of his NHL career.
“Obviously right now we’re in a position where we are losing four in a row,” says Ovechkin, “You don’t feel like you have to worry about your personal stats, especially when we lost to pretty solid teams like San Jose, Anaheim and L.A. and right now we play the top team in the West (the Wild). So it was a pretty good challenge. We did the right things and we won the game.”
The 300 Club – Still days shy of celebrating his 23
rd birthday, Caps right wing Tom Wilson played in the 300
th game of his NHL career on Tuesday against Minnesota. By night’s end, Wilson had just 8:40 in ice time, well under his nightly average for the season. But there was good reason for that; Wilson spent virtually a third of the game in the penalty box.
Just after the Caps forged a 3-0 lead late in the second period, Minnesota winger Ryan White checked Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik hard into the glass from behind. Wilson didn’t wait to see if any official justice would be meted out, he went right for White, gloves flying. It was White, you’ll recall, whose hit concussed Orpik in the playoffs last spring when the winger was a Flyers employee.
Wilson got an instigator minor, a 10-minute misconduct and a five-minute major for fighting for his trouble, but it’s the kind of penalty the Caps are happy to kill.
“Absolutely, I will take those all day long,” says Trotz. “I thought it was a little bit of a high hit, and especially on one of your more respected guys on your team. I think that says a lot about Brooks as a leader and what he means to everybody. Anytime guys step up for each other, the guys respect that.
“And we’ll kill those off. Guys on the bench will rally around that.”
Playing some of his best hockey of the season of late, Wilson also drew a penalty in the game. He came out of the box just in time to help the Caps seal the win late.
“It’s flown by,” says Wilson, speaking before Tuesday’s game. “It’s crazy to think that it’s been 300 games. It’s a huge privilege and hopefully I can keep going here.
“It’s the best league in the world. To have the opportunity to come in and earn a spot and find that kind of role and be a part of this group is awesome. From the first day, this group has been such a special group. They made me feel so welcome, they allowed me to come in and do my job and not worry about anything. There are a lot of good role models and a great room.
“From there, you just worry about playing hockey and you do whatever you can on any given night to stay in the lineup the next night. It’s been a fun ride and some great seasons, but still lots of goals here left to go.”
Penalty Parade – Tuesday’s game marked the fourth straight contest in which the Capitals were tasked with five or more shorthanded situations, and it was the fourth straight game in which the Caps surrendered at least one power-play goal.
Minnesota had seven power play opportunities on the night, and the Caps killed off six of them, including a five-on-three for 49 seconds. Washington is one of five NHL teams that has yet to yield a five-on-three power-play goal this season.
The Caps have not faced five or more kills in four straight games for more than three years now. The last time was Oct. 28-Nov. 5, 2013 when the Caps killed 21 of 22 over a four-game stretch.
Offense from Blueline – Dmitry Orlov made the play to set up Beagle’s goal, registering his 30
th point of the season on the play. That’s a career high for Orlov, who had 29 points last season.
With Orlov having reached the 30-point plateau, Washington now boasts four 30-point defensemen for the first time since 1993-94 when it had four defensemen with 40 or more points: Sylvain Cote (51), Al Iafrate (45), Calle Johansson (42) and Kevin Hatcher (40).
This season, the Caps have Kevin Shattenkirk (46 points), John Carlson (35), Matt Niskanen (35) and Orlov all with 30 or more points to date. (Shattenkirk notched 42 points with St. Louis and has four in six games with Washington.)
As recently as 2006-07, the Caps didn’t have a single blueliner with as many as 30 points on the season. Brian Pothier paced Washington defensemen with 28 points (three goals, 25 assists) that season.
One For The Folks Back Home – With Shattenkirk out for a second straight game because of two-game NHL suspension levied for a hit on the Kings’ Kevin Gravel on Saturday, Schmidt stepped back into the Washington lineup these last two games. Schmidt’s goal late in the first was a huge one that put a different paint job on the contest at that point, but it was also a big personally tally for Schmidt, who hails from Minnesota.
“It’s a first-timer, the first time I’ve scored against them,” notes Schmidt. “I train back home in the summer and I see a lot of those guys, so it’s always fun to play against your buddies and guys you know. I’m going to give them a couple of ribs when I see them in the summertime, so that’s good.”
By The Numbers – Niskanen led the Caps with 24:34 in ice time … Justin Williams led Washington with eight shots on net and Carlson led the way with 11 shot attempts … Ovechkin led the Caps with four hits … Karl Alzner led the Capitals with five blocked shots.