When the Washington Capitals carried a three-goal lead into the second intermission at Madison Square Garden Sunday night, the message from Coach Adam Oates was one of continuation: Don’t lose sight of the details, and focus on making the simple, correct plays that got you this far.
“I talked after the second about [how] we have to close the door,” Oates said. “Let’s work on being a better team and playing a good third period and continue what we do to have success tonight. And I thought the first 10 minutes, we did that, and it let the game get easier.”
The Capitals stayed on course to claim a 4-1 victory over the New York Rangers, showing for the second time in as many days what they can accomplish when they get out of their own way. The triumph also marked a milestone of sorts, as Washington captured consecutive regulation wins for the first time this season.
In its weekend of back-to-back wins over the Predators and Rangers, Washington also created a blueprint for success that could serve as a rough guide moving forward.
On both nights, the Capitals established a lead but, most importantly, didn’t shoot themselves in the foot or crumble under the pressure of an opponent trying to force its way back into the contest. They played a consistent game with no significant lapse in composure and minimized mistakes by making smart plays, whether that meant chipping the puck out of the defensive zone or being sure to get all five skaters involved on a cycle.
These games were “definitely much closer to what we want to see,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “If we were to look at a stat on how many pucks we chipped in versus carried in [against the Rangers] with a couple games before that, I think it’d be a pretty big difference, and same with how many times we got out of the zone clean. It’s just finding ways to play simple and like that, be okay with that and wait for our chance to score. That’s a way better game for us.”
The Capitals that combined for nine goals in two games this weekend weren’t taking unnecessary risks to create chances, yet were no less effective offensively.
Three of the five goals against the Predators came from winning battles to get a shot off quickly following a faceoff win. Three of four against the Rangers were the result of traffic in front. Both scenarios are ones that Washington can recreate through hustle and positioning; they’re opportunities that aren’t entirely dictated by what an opponent does.
Minimizing penalties — the Capitals took a total of five minors this weekend — allowed Washington to play more at even strength and increase the involvement of all four lines in the early stages of the contest.
Each line change against the Rangers seemed like the natural extension of the one before it as Washington worked to establish grinding cycles and chip the puck when pressured in either zone, rather than trying to make often-picked-off passes through the middle of the zone. Even the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, despite being held off the scoresheet in New York, was diligent in working the puck down low and making the gritty plays needed to create sustained pressure.
It was quite the departure from two weeks ago, when Oates criticized the Capitals’ top players for deviating from the game plan too frequently with their offensive improvisations and damaging the team’s overall effort. Whatever Washington’s top players do sets the tone for the rest of the group, and on this night it was no exception.
“You look at Ovi and those guys getting the puck deep and cycling and you’ve gotta win games like that on the road,” winger Jason Chimera said. “It was just a game that everyone really played well and defensively we played really good, turnovers were minimal, and that’s a big key.”
Defensively, Washington showed better anticipation and awareness as players intercepted passes and derailed the opponent’s possessions. Sometimes it led to odd-man rushes and scoring chances, but it always served to help exit the zone and better insulate the goaltender. While the Capitals are still allowing too many shots on goal (their average of 34.9 is second most in the league), limiting the quality looks in close and negating some scrambles around the crease like they did this weekend is at least a start.
That’s what these back-to-back wins could be for the Capitals overall: a start to finding the consistency that has eluded them through the first 30 games of the season.
The key as the schedule keeps churning forward — the Capitals play seven games in the next 14 days before the NHL’s three-day holiday break — is to play the same way, regardless of the circumstances.
“We understand how we need to play. We’ve seen the results,” Alzner said. “Sometimes you get away from it and a couple things don’t go for you and then you do too much, you try and overcompensate. We’ve gotta know that even though we’re going to try and do it, it’s not always going to work. We’re going to have a bad game and the bounces aren’t always going to go our way, but we’ve just got to continue with it no matter what.”
>> In an unrelated note, the Capitals’ fourth goal against the Rangers Sunday night does indeed belong to rookie defenseman Nate Schmidt, who now has two goals in the last two games. He was initially credited with the tally, but it was switched to Eric Fehr, who appeared to tip the puck in front. Monday morning it was switched back to the 22-year-old blueliner, as his shot made its way past Henrik Lundqvist without help from a teammate.