After taking up residence in the Eastern Conference basement at the start of the season, the Washington Capitals know they must start making progress up the standings any way they can manage. If they can capture points against a divisional foe, then all the better.
Thursday night against an injury-riddled Carolina squad, the Capitals put forth the kind of steady performance and thorough execution of Coach Adam Oates’s system they need if they want to work their way into playoff contention.
It wasn’t a flashy outing, but Washington’s 3-0 victory over the Hurricanes at Verizon Center was one of their more complete outings to date. The Capitals improved to 7-10-1 , only four points behind the Southeast Division-leading Hurricanes (9-8-1) but still in last place.
“We’re in a little bit of a predicament here but we play teams in our division for the rest of the year,” defenseman John Carlson said. “There’s a lot of four-point games and a lot of teams we need to pass, so game by game we need to bear down and make sure that we’re playing 100 percent.”
Nicklas Backstrom scored on the power play and the rest of the team’s offensive production came from the blue line with Carlson and John Erskine chipping in goals as the Capitals peppered Carolina netminder Cam Ward with 40 shots.
In the opposite net, Washington goaltender Braden Holtby finished with 33 saves in his seventh consecutive start to record his second shutout of the season and the fifth of his budding NHL career.
Oates’s wouldn’t divulge whether he plans to start Holtby, 23, for an eighth straight game Wednesday when the Capitals visit the Philadelphia Flyers but there’s no doubt his consistent and confident play is rubbing off on his teammates.
“He’s playing very well. I think we’re minimizing” chances, Oates said. “A lot of those shots he sees from a long way out. I think he’s feeling really good and he’s on a little roll, so we’re riding him.”
Just less than three minutes into the game, Hurricanes winger and former Capital Alexander Semin had a quality scoring chance on a two-on-zero short-handed rush with Eric Staal. Holtby easily turned aside the glove-side wrister from Semin, who didn’t have a better opportunity the rest of the night.
It was the type of momentum-building stop has become routine for Holtby over the past seven games, over which he has a 5-2-0 record and has stopped 207 of the 221 shots he’s faced for an impressive .936 save percentage.
“He stopped Semin on a breakaway, so that’s a game-changer right there,” veteran defenseman Tom Poti said. “They go up 1-0, it’s a different game. It was nice when you make that save and he played great the rest of the night too.”
The Capitals took a 1-0 lead 8 minutes 21 seconds into the first on the power play when Backstrom redirected a centering pass from Mike Ribeiro past Ward. The tally marked the ninth game in the past 10 that Washington has recorded at least one goal on the man advantage; they’re 13 for 30 on the power play in that span.
But it was during the second period that Washington truly imposed its offensive will on the Hurricanes. Backstrom fed Erskine on the rush for a heavy shot from the top of the circles that blasted its way past Ward for a 2-0 advantage with just 31 seconds gone in the frame.
Shift after shift the Capitals fed their cycle, wearing down Carolina and creating a flurry of prime scoring chances as they outshot their foes 13-3 to open the period. Perhaps the best chance came on a rebound for Joel Ward when the puck bounced to the right side of the net with Cam Ward far on the left side with a skate out of the crease. But the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner managed to get across fast enough to bat the puck out of mid-air with his glove and prevent it from crossing the goal line.
“The second period — the first 10 minutes there was crazy,” Holtby said. “Cam Ward stood on his head. That’s the only reason it was even close, because we were — by far, that’s the best I’ve seen us play probably since I’ve been in the organization. It was — that 10-minute span was outstanding, so it was a good sign.”
Carlson made it 3-0 with 11:28 gone in the third when he fired a booming slap shot between Ward’s legs off a rebound of a shot by Mathieu Perreault.
While it was a sound and necessary victory, the Capitals were careful not to overstate its importance.
“I don’t think it was a statement game,” Erskine said. “I think we’re just taking one game at a time right now. We’ve got 30 games left or so. Take one game a night and get as many points as we can.”