The Capitals closed out their five-game homestand with a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday night. There are still things to improve, but Washington got its most complete 60-minute effort en route to this particular victory and that’s a step in the right direction.
Martin Erat recorded three assists in his first game after moving up to the second line and whether it was the shuffled line combinations or simply the need to bounce back after the loss to New York, the Capitals were successfully sparked.
Five thoughts on the Capitals’ win over Columbus.
1. Oleksy’s sick move. Steve Oleksy is a steady part of the Capitals’ blueline, a willing fighter and, on Saturday, highlight-reel assist man was added to his resume.
When Martin Erat passed over toward Oleksy in the second period, few likely expected what would come next. With a smooth curl and drag move he sidestepped Blue Jackets winger Cam Atkinson and put a shot on net that was designed to leave a rebound in front. Brooks Laich swept in the loose puck for a 2-0 Capitals lead but it was Oleksy’s set up that had the team talking afterward.
“That one surprised me,” Coach Adam Oates said. “I was a little panicking for a second, but great play. I’m glad. He’s a guy, that from where he came from last year, has done nothing but continually improve.”
Laich was more than happy to be the beneficiary of that play and wouldn’t mind if Oleksy continues with the set up work. Joel Ward said that Oleksy’s confidence with the puck often goes underestimated next to the Capitals’ other puck-moving defensemen.
“Steve-O can surprise you. People don’t give him as much credit, I think he can make a lot of good plays,” Ward said. “It’s not just Greenie or Carly back there.”
Oleksy, meanwhile, was matter of fact in describing his 11th career NHL assist.
“It was a great play by Marty just leaving it to area and I knew once I got it, [Atkinson] was going to expect me to shoot it right away,” Oleksy said. “I kind of waited and let him make the first move. I was just trying to get around him and I knew we had good traffic in front so I just wanted to make sure I got it through to the net and Brooksie did a great job sliding it home.”
2. Cycle at work. Through the first seven games there were common areas that players wanted to see improvement. Offensively, the focus was on establishing a cycle and generating scoring chances through it. The Capitals created a far more consistent cycle against the Blue Jackets than they had in any other game so far this season and no shift was more impressive than one by the second line mid-way through the first period.
Erat, Laich and Troy Brouwer all spent over a minute churning away down low in the offensive zone. They manufactured scoring chances, kept the defensemen involved by working the play out the point, hustled to retrieve loose pucks and refused to relinquish possession for more than a few seconds.
Those are the kinds of shifts that build momentum even when they don’t result in goals and that certainly was the case against the Blue Jackets. The encouragement it offers was noticeable even to Braden Holtby back in his net.
“I think in the first few games we had that at times but the times we were cycling down there it seemed like we were too worried with making mistakes and just wanting to keep it low,” Holtby said. “Today we were on every puck, trying to get it to the net, trying to force some offensive chances and being hard on it to get it back again. That creates even more energy when guys are close to scoring and they want to drive it to the net every time they get it. We were relentless with that and that’s why we scored four goals.”
3. Speaking of Holtby. The Capitals’ netminder was outstanding in a 37-save effort. His toughest work came in the second as Columbus attempted to mount a comeback, but Holtby thwarted all of those early threats including a particularly frantic set of shots with just over seven minutes gone in the frame.
It was after Holtby stopped shots by Marian Gaborik and David Savard at one end that the Capitals raced the other way and Laich scored to make it 2-0.
“That hasn’t really happened to us this year yet,” Oates said. “That was a key moment to get that second goal after a little bit of a breakdown which is big for us.”
4. Meaner D. As he typically does, Holtby shared the credit for the low number of goals against with the Capitals defensemen and in his postgame comments he mentioned that the blueliners were “challenged to play meaner” heading into Saturday’s game.
Mean doesn’t stand for fighting, so much as being tougher to play against in the areas around the crease.
“It means in front of the net, if there’s rebounds — the rebounds today were fairly nonexistent,” Holtby said. “If they got one they barely got any wood on it. That’s a credit to our guys playing hard in front making them scared to get to those tough areas. That’s what kept the goals against so low.”
5. On the road again. The Capitals finish their homestand 2-3, 3-5-0 overall. It’s far from an ideal start but the win against Columbus at least provides something to build on as the team prepares for five straight games on the road beginning with a four-game trip to Western Canada.
“We’re not going to pat ourselves on the back for too long. It’s a nice win but we’re still sub-.500 right now,” Laich said. “We did what we wanted to tonight and now we’ve got to get back to work on Monday and be a tough, tough team on the road.”
The Capitals are off Sunday and will practice next at 10:30 on Monday before flying to Winnipeg.