Playing well in the first period and handling an opponent’s sustained pressure haven’t been Washington’s strong suits this season, but the Capitals accomplished both in a 5-2 victory over the Nashville Predators on Saturday night.
The Capitals recorded three goals in the first period and not only protected the lead but built on it, maintaining strong play throughout the contest.
Braden Holtby finished with 34 saves and five different players, including two unlikely defensemen, scored goals for Washington as it captured its first regulation win since Nov. 17 against St. Louis — eight games earlier.
Jumping to an early lead was a welcome change of pace.
“Lately a lot of the time we’ve been coming from behind, having to come [back] from either one or two goals. You’re not going to have a ton of success later in the season doing that,” said Troy Brouwer, who snapped an 11-game scoring drought in the first period. “We were able to squeeze out some points here and there, but you can only win so many games like that.”
The Capitals overwhelmed both Nashville’s defense and rookie netminder Marek Mazanec at the outset with the type of first period showing that has been rare for the club. Each line moved up the ice well and blitzed the offensive zone, and it was a strong shift by the second unit, culminating with Brouwer’s goal, that gave Washington the initial lead.
Eric Fehr fired a slap shot on net from the right side boards, and Brouwer, tangled up in front with Ryan Ellis, managed to backhand the rebound through the defenseman’s skates and past Mazanec (28 saves) for a 1-0 edge with 6 minutes 44 seconds gone. Just that one goal seemed to allow the Capitals to play a freer, more confident game.
“It’s a lot easier to play with the lead obviously,” Holtby said. “Against a team that’s known for its defensive play, I thought we did a good job of earning the goals that we got and got a win because of it.”
Washington continued to churn in the offensive zone, and when Rich Clune was whistled for interference, the home team needed only three seconds to convert on the power play. After a faceoff win by Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin stepped into a blistering slap shot that carried enough force to hit off Mazanec’s pad and keep going until it found the back of the net. Ovechkin’s league-leading 22nd tally put Washington up 2-0 with a little more than 13 minutes elapsed.
Then it was time for the Capitals’ defense to get involved, albeit from an unexpected source. Karl Alzner fired a snap shot from the point with Backstrom and Predators captain Shea Weber creating traffic in front. Alzner’s shot found its way through to make it 3-0. It was Alzner’s first goal of the year and the sixth of his career, which came in his 292nd regular season game, but the first to come at Verizon Center.
“We did a lot of good things to get the lead,” Coach Adam Oates said. “We talked about that, to put ourselves in a good position [where] you’re in the driver’s seat. It obviously helps.”
Even though Washington’s offense came alive in the opening period, Holtby wasn’t without work. The Predators had occasional spurts of sustained pressure, including a frantic scramble around the crease with three close-in shots in six seconds not long after Brouwer’s goal. Holtby weathered that series along with a few other quality looks but wouldn’t escape the period unscathed as Nashville defenseman Roman Josi scored on a rush with 22.5 seconds remaining to make it 3-1.
The Capitals’ true test in these situations is always how they respond to an opponent fighting to find a way back into a contest. Nashville kicked off the second period with a few dominant shifts, hemming the play deep in the Capitals’ end and buzzing around Holtby. But despite having 10 attempts on goal (to the Capitals’ four) in that first 4:28 of the middle period, the Predators couldn’t score.
The Capitals mustered only six shots in the second period to Nashville’s 12, but its defense remained stout.
“You know the other team’s going to come in waves. You know they’re going to have their moments where they’re going to get pressure and sustained forechecks,” Brouwer said. “You’ve gotta be able to handle it, relieve the pressure, get pucks out and go to work yourselves.”
Washington did just that and in the third period when Nate Schmidt added his first career goal to the scoresheet. Joel Ward won a faceoff, and then Martin Erat found the rookie defenseman at the point, where Schmidt teed up a shot with 3:29 gone in the third to make it 4-1.
But in what has become a well-established trend for the Capitals, they allowed a goal quickly afterward. Eric Nystrom pulled Nashville within two again just 23 seconds after Schmidt’s tally. It marked the 14th time the Capitals have given up a goal in the first 2:30 after scoring themselves, but on this night it wouldn’t be a costly problem.
Washington held on to its advantage, and Fehr added one final flourish with 5:10 left in regulation to salt away a victory in the first of back-to-back games this weekend.