Five thoughts on the Capitals’ 4-2 win in Carolina

December 21, 2013

 (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The Capitals finally solved the Carolina Hurricanes, capturing a 4-2 win in the teams’ third meeting of the season Friday night in Raleigh after dropping the first two. Alex Ovechkin recorded his 400th career goal in the victory as Washington improved to 41 points and 19-13-3 on the season.

1. Grubi-doobie-do. Philipp Grubauer faced significant work Friday night as the Hurricanes put 41 shots on goal racked up 86 total attempts, several of which were of the Grade-A variety. Jeff Skinner had a breakaway and then a point-blank backhander in the first and Jordan Staal also had a handful of opportunities from splitting the Capitals’ defense, springing ice on stretch passes that Carolina uses well.

But Grubauer withstood the push in the first period to keep the game close – Carolina managed only a 1-0 lead through the first 20 minutes but could have had a few more if it wasn’t for the 22-year-old’s effort. In the second his teammates provided some long-awaited support and in the third Grubauer stood tall once again as Washington protected its one-goal lead, making arguably his best save of the night against Hurricanes captain Eric Staal on a breakaway.

“After my last game, it was a terrible game,” Grubauer said, referring to when he gave up four goals on 28 shots to the Flyers in a win on Dec. 15. “I wanted to make sure I come back the way I’m capable of playing and that’s what I tried to show today.”

In every start the young netminder has made, Grubauer consistently gives the Capitals a chance to win. Some nights he gets more help in front than others but such is life of a goaltender and in a season where Washington’s defense is still struggling to find consistency, having a goaltender steady the ship on a nightly basis is all the team can ask for.

“He’s gained our confidence absolutely in the last few weeks that he’s been here,” Troy Brouwer said. “He looks like he’s making a break for the No.1 spot, which is a good battle to have — goalies playing well. Ultimately he gave us a chance to win [Friday] and pretty much got us a win.”

With his performance since being recalled on Nov. 30 Grubauer has been making a strong case that he belongs in the NHL, helping Washington to rack up wins. The better he plays the more interesting the Capitals’ decisions with the three goaltenders, all of whom are on the active roster, become.

“I want to give the guys in front of me confidence. I don’t want to be known as ‘Oh no the rookie goalie’s back in the net again’,” Grubauer said. “I want to give the guys confidence in front so they can make the plays so that we’re not just playing defense all the time because it’s not how we play. It was a good game, a good bounce back game for me.”

2. Four is a charm. Nicklas Backstrom recorded an assist on each of Washington’s four goals against the Hurricanes, including three primary helpers. With that quartet the Capitals’ reserved star has taken over the league-lead in assists with 33 in 35 games, passing Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby by 1. It’s the second time in 10 days he’s recorded four assists in a single contest and the fifth time this season he’s posted three or more in any individual outing.

When Backstrom is making smart reads and set ups with this type of efficiency, the goals always seem to follow for the Capitals. On this particular occasion, it was Backstrom’s vision on the power play that helped Washington take advantage of the space created by the Hurricanes’ desire to take away Ovechkin on the man advantage. Speaking of which….

3. Take away Ovi? No problem. Hurricanes Coach Kirk Muller said earlier this season after a win at Verizon Center that they’ve opted to limit and isolate Ovechkin on the power play because they’d rather contend with the chances from the point and in the slot. They’re far from the only team to make that choice, and on Friday night the Capitals adapted well to take advantage of that better than they have all season.

When teams shadow the star winger so that he can’t fire one-timers at will on the power play, the Capitals look to overload the middle of the ice. They used point shots through traffic to score two of the three power play goals – Cam Ward never saw John Carlson’s blast from the point and Brouwer deflected a shot by Mike Green when the defenseman’s stick broke — and had a solid effort by Marcus Johansson in front to record another on a rebound.

They weren’t pretty tic-tac-toe plays but when opponents remove Ovechkin from the equation all that matters is that the Capitals man-advantage can still find a way to convert.

Brouwer’s goal was particularly fortuitous as the winger was able to adjust to the changing direction of the puck after Green’s stick broke and still manage to redirect the shot in the high slot.

“When it comes slower obviously I get a better touch on it, I had my stick half way up my body thinking it was going to be a higher shot because that’s where he usually likes to shoot,” Brouwer said. “That’s almost a weird adjustment that you don’t ever practice having to put your stick back down on the ice for a broken stick.”

4. Ward’s quietly effective night. Joel Ward didn’t record a single point in his 18:14 of ice time in Carolina, he didn’t even get a shot on goal. But the winger played a solid game, drawing two penalties – including the one on Tuomo Ruutu for holding that led to Carlson’s goal – and helping to create a forecheck that ate up time on the clock both on penalty kills and late in the game as Washington held on to its one-goal lead.

That’s the type of game that doesn’t show up on a scoresheet but is the type of play the Capitals need throughout the lineup. Even at the beginning of the game when the Hurricanes dominated the pace of the contest, Ward and his linemates Jason Chimera and Martin Erat were most able to escape their own zone.

5. Johansson. The winger scored a goal unlike the ones he usually tallies when he followed up on a loose puck in front when Cam Ward couldn’t handle the rebound and stuffed the puck past the goaltender’s left skate to start Washington’s power play party. But he suffered what the team would only describe as a lower-body injury and didn’t take a shift after being on the ice for Brouwer’s goal at 15:29 of the second period.

The Capitals appear close to regaining the health of their forwards this weekend with Brooks Laich skating frequently and encouraged that he will be able to return to the lineup either on Dec. 23, the first day he is eligible to come off LTIR, or soon after. Losing Johansson would be a blow to that depth once again because no one has found the chemistry with Ovechkin and Backstrom that he has. While he does receive third-billing on that line, he’s proven to be the most adept at playing with Washington’s two stars.

If he’s out for any length of time, Coach Adam Oates will have some interesting decisions to make. Does he risk breaking up the second line to move Eric Fehr up? Perhaps put disgruntled winger Martin Erat up top, where he played for five games earlier in the season?

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Neil Greenberg · December 21, 2013