So many times this season the Washington Capitals have found ways to give away points to opposing teams, especially those nipping at their heels in the Metropolitan Division standings. But on Friday night at Verizon Center, they found a way to win in regulation and put some distance between themselves and the New York Rangers.
The Capitals managed to overcome coughing up a pair of one-goal leads and captured a 3-2 victory thanks to a game-winning goal by Eric Fehr with 14 minutes 51 seconds gone in the third period. The victory pushed the Capitals six points ahead of New York for second place in the division.
Rookie netminder Philipp Grubauer was stellar again, recording 38 saves as the Capitals leaned on him for a sixth start in the past nine games, and Washington got goals from Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom as well. That Washington managed to accomplish this all in regulation, though, may have been the greatest feat of all, especially when considering that Friday’s victory is only the 10th to come in 60 minutes through the first 38 games this season.
“It’s always important for us to try to win in regulation. I think too often we rely on overtime and the shootout,” said Fehr, who was a dynamic presence every time he took the ice, recording six shots and two hits in 16:17 of ice time. “Come playoff time that’s not there for us. We need to find ways to be a better team in third periods and close out games and win it five-on-five.”
The Capitals needed their composure throughout this game, which like so many recent matchups with New York was a tight game with both teams exchanging waves of momentum.
Green gave the Capitals an initial lead 6:55 into the first period on a power-play goal after drawing the infraction himself. Just more than five minutes in, Green cut through the neutral zone and was hauled down by Rick Nash as he crossed the offensive blue line.
With 14 seconds remaining in the ensuing man-advantage, Green teed up a one-timer on the point after a feed from Martin Erat on the half wall for a 1-0 Capitals advantage. It marked Green’s third goal of the season, all of which have come in the past 11 games.
“It always feels good to score. [The goals] are coming,” Green said. “I felt great.”
The Rangers tied the game at 1 early in the second period when Benoit Pouliot tipped a shot past Grubauer on a power play, but Washington kept churning forward. Fehr had a shot just miss on a power play when the puck clanked off the left post and bounced behind Rangers backup goaltender Cam Talbot (31 saves) but never crossed the goal line.
New York came with a frantic push as time ticked down in the second period, dominating possession, swarming the crease and outshooting the Capitals 9-1 in a span of 3:15. But Grubauer, ever unflappable in his eight appearances this season, withstood the barrage of quality chances.
“It was good for me after those three days off [for the NHL’s Christmas break]. It was really good for me to get into the game,” said Grubauer, who is 5-1-1 this season. “We expected that [Rangers push]. It’s not like they’re going to sit back all the time. It was good we came out last period — second period was a little bit flat for us — but last period was good.”
One particular stop by Grubauer sent the puck bouncing out in front and provided an escape valve. Steve Oleksy corralled the puck in the neutral zone and fed it up to Backstrom, who slipped behind the Rangers’ defense and fired a shot under Talbot’s right arm for a 2-1 lead with only 65 seconds remaining in the period.
The Rangers answered with a shorthanded goal by Carl Hagelin 17 seconds into the third period to threaten Washington once more. What could have been a discouraging moment served as little more than a blip in the course of the night. The Capitals kept churning, and when offsetting slashing minors to Mats Zuccarello and Troy Brouwer put the game at four-on-four, Fehr and Backstrom strategized that they would need to generate speed and force the Rangers’ blue-liners to back off if they wanted to create an odd-man rush.
When the Rangers didn’t give him as much space as he hoped for, Fehr switched up the plan and shot from the top of the right circle. The smart decision worked.
“Kind of a nothing play. All of a sudden it’s in the net, which at that time of the game gave us huge confidence,” Coach Adam Oates said. “But we also didn’t give them anything, which was encouraging for me. We did the right things.”