Two The Hard Way – It wasn’t pretty, but it was gritty. And in the end, the Caps picked up a pair of points. Coming back from a successful three-game road trip (2-0-1), the Caps scraped out a grinding 2-1 shootout win over the New York Islanders on Thursday night at Verizon Center.
The win lifted the Caps into a tie for the top spot in the NHL’s Southeast Division with the Winnipeg Jets. Washington is the official holder of the Southeast catbird’s seat as it has played two fewer games than the Jets. Friday morning will mark the first time this season that the Caps will wake up in a playoff position.
The Isles had vexed the Caps until Thursday, beating Washington in regulation in each of the previous two meetings between the two teams this season.
“They’re a good hockey team,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “They are and they played well. They’re obviously very confident. Their [defensemen] really move well and their goalie has played well for them.
“We scored in the first period, which is good. I thought we played a really good game. We leaked a little oil down the stretch, but you know a team is going to make a push. And we killed a big penalty at the end, which was important.”
Over the first seven-plus minutes of the game, there was just one stoppage. But there wasn’t much time or space to be had on either side, and shooting lanes were also at a premium.
New York nearly drew first blood late in the first when Thomas Hickey’s shot trickled between the leg pads of Caps goaltender Braden Holtby. But Washington defenseman Karl Alzner was Johnny-on-the-spot, sweeping the puck from harm’s way just as it teetered near the goal line.
The Caps seemed to hold a territorial and possession advantage in the first 20 minutes, and they took a 1-0 lead in the waning seconds of the first.
Caps center Nicklas Backstrom pulled the puck off the left wing wall and pushed it toward linemate Marcus Johansson in the high slot. Johansson spotted Caps blueliner Mike Green coming off the bench, and Johansson teed it up for him. Green did the rest, driving down to the right dot before releasing a wrist shot that beat Isles goalie Evgeni Nabokov to give the Caps a 1-0 lead with just 12.9 seconds left in the first.
Washington held a 20-11 edge in shots attempted after 20, but the Isles would shift that margin back in the second. New York managed to get just five shots through on Holtby in the first, but it poured 14 of the 21 it attempted in the second on net. Holtby was the equal of all of them.
By the end of the second period, the Isles had closed Washington’s lead in shot attempts to a slim 33-32.
Ever pesky and industrious, the Isles continued to lean on the Caps in the Washington end in the third. Early in the 56th minute of the game, the Caps finally cracked.
New York’s Josh Bailey thwarted the Capitals’ clearing bid and carried around the back of the Washington cage. He curled out the far side and dished to Frans Nielsen in front. Nielsen one-touched the puck to linemate Kyle Okposo near the left dot and his one-timer finished the pretty passing sequence and eluded Holtby to even the game at 1-1.
In the third period and overtime, the Islanders fired a total of 27 shots toward the Caps’ cage, getting 17 of them on net. The Caps countered with 17 shot bids of their own, getting 10 on goal.
Holtby finished with 34 saves, several of them of the stellar variety. Twenty-nine of those stops came in the final two periods and overtime.
Washington has now played 37 games this season, and tonight was the first of those games in which both teams combined for two or fewer tallies on the night.
“There was a lot of cycling and a lot of zone time by both teams but not a whole lot through the middle,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “We don’t like to be outshot like we were tonight but at the same time we controlled a lot of the play, we feel. We had it down in their end a lot of the time. The shooting lanes weren’t necessarily there and that’s what they do well. So we had to try to find ways to go around it.
“But for us, we got our two points. We were playing against a team that it didn’t really matter tonight if we went to overtime. We just needed to get two points for our division.”
Very early in this abbreviated season, the Caps were finding ways to lose games like the one on Thursday against the Isles. Not only did they lose those games, they lost them in the first 60 minutes and didn’t get points from those losses. Now, they’re finding ways to win those games.
“I think we’ve learned from our mistakes,” says Green. “I think at times we’ve maybe gotten down or the morale of the team, the heads drop, and then worse things happen from there. It’s just a matter of continuing to play strong and play a full 60 minutes with the same mind frame.
“Tonight, when you do that – whether it’s shootout, overtime, whatnot – you’re going to win, just as long as you stay even keel.”
Leading Men – Green’s goal gave the Caps something they hadn’t had all season against the Islanders, a lead. The Capitals had gone 139 minutes and 17 seconds without owning a scoreboard advantage over the Isles this season.
Four Score – Green is noted for scoring goals in eight straight games back in the winter of 2009; setting an NHL record for most consecutive games with a goal by a defenseman in the process.
After his first-period tally against the Islanders tonight, Green is halfway toward matching that hallowed mark.
“He’s got a nice little streak going,” says Oates. “I love the way he is moving up in the play. He’s not trying to do too much with it. I would say the last few games he has moved up at the correct times and been involved in the play at the correct time and not tried to gamble. Obviously the poise on the blueline is huge, the puck possession is huge and [he is] playing very well.”
This is Green’s first goal spree of as many as four consecutive contests since he scored in four straight from Oct. 30-Nov. 7, 2010, a period that included Holtby’s first NHL win (Nov. 5) and first NHL start (Nov. 7).
It was Green who supplied the overtime game-winner to make a 3-2 winner of Holtby in that Nov. 7, 2010 matinee against the Philadelphia Flyers in Holtby’s first NHL start.
Late Thunder – Green’s goal came in the final minute of the first frame, and it was the Capitals’ third last-minute goal in a span of four periods at that point.
In its 5-3 win over the Hurricanes in Carolina on Tuesday, Washington scored a goal in the final minute of the both the first and the second period.
New Blood – Thursday’s game marked the Washington debut for newly acquired left wing Martin Erat. Until Thursday, Erat had played all 723 of his previous NHL games in a Nashville Predators sweater. He arrived in D.C. on Thursday morning in time to participate in the morning skate, and he took to the ice for Thursday’s game skating on a line with Mathieu Perreault and Alex Ovechkin.
Erat skated 14:43 on the night (1:01 of it on the power play), recording three hits and a win in his lone face-off attempt. He showed some physicality, some speed and made a few strong passes, acquitting himself well in his first impression.
“I thought he did a great job,” says Oates of Erat. “I really did. You can obviously see his skills. He really helped us on the cycle. He’s a smart guy, you can tell. I thought he did a great job. Getting traded is not always easy. You play on a franchise for a long time and all of a sudden you’ve got to say good-bye, meet new guys and step into a lineup. It’s nerve-wracking; very stressful.”
“It’s always hard when you come to a team and you don’t practice with those guys,” says Erat. “But they are great players and it was very good to play with them.”
“I think his IQ. He knows how to play his position. He knows how to play in the game. I talked to a couple of guys I know from the Czech National Team and they said, ‘You’re going to really like his hockey IQ,’ and I can see that. He doesn’t put himself in bad positions.”
Man Down – Caps center Brooks Laich took a puck to the midsection early in the game and he hobbled off to the bench on all fours afterwards. Laich didn’t miss a shift afterwards, but he did get the rest of the game off after the middle of the third.
Laich took just four shifts in the third period and none in overtime. He missed the first 28 games of the season with a lower body injury and has played nine games in a span of just 17 days.
“From coming back from what he did, he’s kind of aching all over,” says Oates. “He’s really crammed a lot of hockey into a short span of time. He looked a little sore all over.
“He got hit, and [head athletic trainer Greg Smith] kind of looked at me and said, ‘You might want to shut him down right now,’ because we’ve got two games coming up [this weekend]. He was fighting it a little bit. Nothing major, juts make sure he’s okay for the weekend.”
Nabbed – The Caps recorded a rare win over longtime netminding nemesis Evgeni Nabokov. After tonight’s shootout win over the veteran Islanders goaltender, he maintains a 12-1-3 lifetime mark with two shutouts, a 2.09 GAA and a .926 save pct. in 16 career starts against the Capitals.
By the Numbers – Green’s 26 minutes paced the Caps in ice time … Johansson’s 20:51 in ice time was a single-game high for this season Jack Hillen led the Caps with 22:31 in even-strength ice time … Perreault and John Carlson paced the Caps with four shots on net each … Carlson led the way with six hits … Backstrom won 12 of 18 draws (66.7%) … Matt Martin led the Islanders with six hits, accounting for nearly half their total of 14 … Okposo won six of seven draws (86%).