A strong, three-goal first period that included a pair of tallies by Alex Ovechkin jump started Washington’s 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues Sunday night at Verizon Center.
Five thoughts on the Capitals’ win over the Blues.
1. Three assists. What a superb and yet easily overshadowed play by Nicklas Backstrom when his deft tap pass in the neutral zone sprung Ovechkin for his first goal against the Blues. “I think there’s a little chemistry involved in that. I expect that from him,” Coach Adam Oates said.
Backstrom and Ovechkin have uncanny chemistry when working together, but in recent games the 25-year-old center has been outstanding in his own right.
Against St. Louis, Backstrom assisted on both of Ovechkin’s goals as well as John Carlson’s tally, making Sunday’s contest the third time this season and 24th time in his career he’s recorded three assists in a single game. (He also had quite the nice spin move in the slot.) No one has recorded three assists in a single game as many times as Backstrom since the Capitals’ franchise center entered the league in 2007-08, and he now sits second in the league with 19 assists — behind only Joe Thornton (20) for the league lead. In Detroit Friday, Backstrom was particularly assertive in firing six shots on goal and playing an aggressive role as the low man on the power play.
While Backstrom is happy to relinquish the spotlight to Ovechkin, his efforts and abilities certainly don’t go unnoticed by his teammates.
“Nicky deserves just as much credit for the goals that Ovi scores as he does,” Braden Holtby said. “He should be looked at like that. Nicky does a lot, and as his teammate of his, you can’t say enough about what he does for that line and the team — as a leader and as a player. He’s our steadying guy. He’s a guy we look up to.”
2. Shots. And more shots. Braden Holtby finished with a career-high 46 saves against the Blues. It marked the 13th time of the 15 games he’s finished this season in which he’s faced 30 or more shots in a game. And if there were any real doubt about how many shots the Capitals are giving up on a regular basis, Holtby has faced the fourth-most shots of all goaltenders in the league at 547 behind only Mike Smith (637), Ondrej Pavelec (575) and Ryan Miller (568).
Holtby had a solid outing against the Blues, and even though he spent most of the night fighting to see shots through screens in front, the Capitals defensemen did a good all around job of keeping their opponents to the outside and clearing rebounds from out in front.
“They throw a lot of pucks to the net. Their game plan is to get traffic and rebounds. Every game is different,” Holtby said. “Some games you get 20 shots and a lot of them are scoring chances. Games like [Sunday] are ones where you’re just battling through traffic all night. I thought we did a good job of it getting on sticks and we got lucky [with] the few deflections that didn’t go in. We stuck to our game plan.”
Oates wasn’t especially concerned about the total, given that the Blues were pressing to attempt a comeback for most of the contest and how Washington limited its opponent late in the contest even as the number of shots increased.
“They did get a lot, and I think that’s indicative of the score a little bit. They got a lot of PPs but chances-wise, they didn’t have a lot really in the third,” Oates said. “The only one they had was the one Holts gave them — he didn’t direct the rebound correctly to the guy back door. Other than that I don’t think they had a lot of good quality chances.”
3. Third line. When Oates put Mikhail Grabovski with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, it raised some eyebrows. It looked like it might be a temporary grouping until the newest Capital established some familiarity and better understanding of the system. But 14 games and nearly a month later, they’re still together working efficiently and consistently at even strength.
Grabovski recorded his fourth goal and 12th point since being put on that line with his tally in the first period against St. Louis. Since they were united on this line, Grabovski, Chimera and Ward have combined for 16 goals and 19 assists – all but three of those goals have come at even strength.
4. U-S-A. There was a heavy Team USA presence in the press box at Verizon Center Sunday night with U.S. assistant general manager Ray Shero, U.S. advisor Don Waddell and U.S. assistant coach Peter Laviolette all in attendance for the Capitals matchup with the Blues. While there are more U.S. Olympic hopefuls on the St. Louis side — David Backes, Kevin Shattenkirk and T.J. Oshie — Capitals defenseman John Carlson’s recent strong play should be aiding his cause.
With his goal against the Blues, Carlson has five goals in the past eight games. When he’s scoring, the defenseman seems to be a more assertive and decisive presence in all areas of the game.
“Obviously, everyone thinks about it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But tonight we had a big test and I’m worried about my team and that’s my goal right now,” Carlson said, when asked if he thinks about the Olympics. “If I get to the next goal, that’s great. But I’m not going change where my head’s at right now for something that I don’t know what’s going to be.”
As was the case entering this season, Carlson needs to continue his strong all-around play if he’s to find a spot on the U.S. roster for Sochi. With several young, puck-moving defensemen to choose from — including Carlson and Shattenkirk — the decisions may come down to who’s playing the best.
For Oates, though, there’s no doubt Carlson belongs on the squad.
“If you watch, well all year but really the last 10 games, I don’t think it’d be any question,” Oates said. “I don’t know how you guys fee,l but he played 32 ½ the other night, him and Alzy have been shutdown guys — they both play fantastic hockey, every situation. Now with Greenie out, he’s doing PP. He’s got five goals now, he’s playing great hockey.”
Here is Carlson’s goal from Sunday.
5. Rivalry setup. With the Capitals’ win Sunday, they moved into first place in the Metropolitan Division, one point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who face the league-leading Anaheim Ducks Monday night. Regardless how that contest turns out, the first meeting of the year between the Capitals and Penguins will be for first place in the division.
The Caps are off on Monday but will be back on the ice in Arlington for practice Tuesday morning.