After 50 minutes and 50 seconds of scoreless hockey Saturday night, Julien Brouillette cracked the game open and his first NHL goal would stand as the game-winner in Washington’s 3-0 victory over the Devils at Verizon Center.
Five thoughts on the win over New Jersey.
1. A positive note. The Capitals can embark on their travels Sunday with more ease, knowing that while they won’t play another game for 2 1/2 weeks they did win three of their final four games before the break. With the win over New Jersey, the Capitals managed to capture their first Metropolitan Division win since Dec. 27 but also move a step up the Eastern Conference standings. Washington passed the Devils and now holds 63 points – one out of the last wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
“You want to go in on a positive note and not be dwelling on the recent games or whatnot,” Braden Holtby said. “I think that will do our team well, everyone will get rested up, healed up and come into practice with the right mindset.”
While these recent wins don’t change the fact that they are still on the outside looking in on the playoff picture and will have the third toughest schedule left when the NHL resumes in late February, the Capitals did manage to salvage some standings points. From here on out they will only become more valuable.
Saturday wasn’t a pretty win, neither was Thursday’s, for that matter. Both games required three-goal, third-period outbursts and for much of their game against New Jersey the Capitals were chasing the play rather than dictating it. But the Capitals did show enough patience, bent but didn’t break under pressure from their foes, and ultimately scored on a simple but well-executed play.
To often this season Washington has undermined its own efforts with excessive penalties, vacant defensive play and soft goals allowed. Against the Devils, they managed to not shoot themselves in the foot which is still a step in the right direction.
“After we come back from the Olympics, we’re going to be on a good note, in a good mood,” Alex Ovechkin said. “The team will have left with a smile on our face. We did a great job tonight, we knew it was going to be hard.”
2. Erat scores (for real). So apparently when Martin Erat put a puck in his own net against Winnipeg Thursday, it really was just a warmup act. Saturday night, in his 51st game of the season, the veteran winger finally recorded his first goal of the year – for the Capitals, anyway – with an empty-netter at 18:13 of the third period against New Jersey.
“Finally, the one is in the net. It’s just going to keep going,” Erat said, insisting that he wasn’t worried about getting a goal. “No, not really…. I’m worried about the two points. If we’re going to win 1-0, I really don’t care like if somebody score a goal. I’m not worried about too much and I’m just hoping right now it’s going to help me.”
Now empty-net goals aren’t usually things worth remembering but considering the length of Erat’s drought, the Capitals had a little fun with this one. Erat had fired a long-range wrister from outside the blueline into the yawning cage and as the celebration began, Alex Ovechkin scooped up the puck for safekeeping as if the marker were truly a milestone.
“I steal the puck for him,” Ovechkin said with a laugh. “He saved it.”
3. 100 for Brouwer. A true milestone goal came on the Capitals’ second empty net tally, a goal by Troy Brouwer with 71 seconds remaining in regulation. The tally was Brouwer’s 100th career goal, not a bad going-away present ahead of the Olympic break for the veteran forward who hasn’t scored as much as he would like this season. Heading into the break Brouwer has four goals in the last four games, the most efficient span he’s had this season. Perhaps this is the beginning of a little consistency from Brouwer, though, the challenge will be keeping it up two weeks from now.
“It’s always nice when the guys get on the scoreboard,” Ovechkin said. “I’m happy for Brouwer, it’s a big number for him.”
4. Early empty net. Trailing by one, the Devils opted to pull Cory Schneider, who really doesn’t get the goal-support to go with his efforts most nights, on the early side. Schneider went to the bench with 2:16 left in the game, which is sooner than many coaches traditionally opt to pull their goaltender for an extra attacker. Teams searching for a tying goal often will wait until less than a minute remains, minimizing the risk they take with the empty net, to make one final offensive push.
But Coach Adam Oates wasn’t surprised to see Devils Coach Peter DeBoer make the decision with more than two minutes left.
“We told the guys it was coming early. It seems to be a trend lately and Colorado did it to them the other day. We expected it around that time,” said Oates, who acknowledged that given how much points mean to teams and how quickly a game can shift can play a roll in the decision. “It’s such a log jam any night anything can happen. You see it a lot where all of a sudden they score on an empty net and they beat you in a shootout. It happens to teams, it’s happened to us this year. The margin of error is so small.”
5. Holtby. Three days ago Braden Holtby didn’t know if he would get another start before the Olympic break but all it takes is one decent cold to shake up a depth chart. When Michal Neuvirth became too sick to start against the Jets it opened up another opportunity for Holtby, who has stopped 46 of the 48 shots he’s faced in these last two games combined and anchored the Capitals in a pair of wins.
“Now he’s playing coming off the break,” Oates said, making his approach quite clear: Win and you’re in. If for any reason you can’t suit up for a scheduled start, be equally prepared to lose your spot.
“We had three here at one point because of circumstances. It happened again,” Oates said. “It’s bad luck for one guy but it’s opportunity for another.”
Is this Holtby reclaiming the top spot? That will have to wait until after the Olympic break to determine for certain.