The Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets entered their first meeting as Metropolitan Division foes in similar situations. Both are off to lackluster starts, and both shook up their line combinations ahead of this matchup looking for a spark.
With goals by four players — including two on the power play — and a solid 37-save showing by goaltender Braden Holtby, it was Washington that came away with a 4-1 win and something solid on which to build.
The Capitals (3-5-0) wrapped up their five-game homestand on a positive note. But the team knows there are still plenty of things to work on.
“It was better. I think we still had our moments we obviously have to clean up,” said Coach Adam Oates, who is still waiting to see the Capitals develop the consistency they had late last season. “We did some good things. It still doesn’t have the feeling of last year, the second half of the year. It doesn’t. I still think we have too many breakdowns in our own end, but I’m glad the guys got a win. It’s been a tough homestand, tough sledding.”
Oates’s line alterations paid dividends, with Martin Erat recording three assists in 17 minutes 49 seconds of ice time after being moved from the fourth line up to the second. Both of Erat’s linemates, Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer, recorded even-strength tallies for their second goals of the season to help Washington build its lead. Meanwhile, Joel Ward and Alex Ovechkin kept the league’s best power play rolling with a 2-for-4 showing.
Although the teams ended the first period scoreless, the Capitals laid a foundation by establishing a consistent cycle game, something often absent through the first seven games.
On one shift, the reconfigured second line of Erat, Laich and Brouwer spent well more than a minute churning away down low in the Columbus end and built momentum with rapid passing, frequent checks and hustle to ensure they maintained possession. They didn’t score, but that shift and others like it bolstered Washington’s efforts all the way down the bench.
“You wear them down,” Erat said. “It’s a 60-minute game, and those [defensemen are] going to feel it in the end. We just capitalize on our chances. We just get them tired, and that’s our game.”
Eighty-six seconds into the middle period, Brandon Dubinsky tripped Mike Green, putting Washington’s intimidating power play (30.8 percent) to work.
Much like the lineup itself, the first power-play unit featured a new look with Ward in the slot and Marcus Johansson down low. Nicklas Backstrom fed the puck to Johansson, who sent a one-touch pass out front to Ward for a one-timer that found space under the right arm of Sergei Bobrovsky to put Washington ahead 1-0 for his second power-play goal in three games. Bobrovsky, the defending Vezina Trophy winner as best goaltender, finished with 35 saves.
Columbus threatened to tie the contest for the next six minutes, though, outshooting the Capitals 8-2 in that span and creating quality chances. But Holtby handled all of the tight looks around the crease, his confidence apparent as he dismissed every one.
He came out to challenge on multiple occasions and didn’t shy away from any attempts by Columbus players to crash the net, but Holtby deferred praise and credited his defensemen with a renewed effort in front of him.
“I thought we played a lot harder tonight. Our ‘D’ were kind of challenged to play meaner, and they did an absolute fabulous job of it — it makes life a lot easier in our ‘D’ zone,” Holtby said. “We obviously want to clean up some systems stuff, but the way we played, we played extremely hard and generated a lot of offensive chances because of it, too.”
The Capitals withstood the frenzy and responded by taking a 2-0 lead. After gaining the offensive blue line, Erat passed to defenseman Steve Oleksy, who made a slick move to pull the puck past Cam Atkinson and fire a shot on net. Positioned at the top of the blue paint, Laich knocked the rebound into an empty net at the 7:43 mark of the second.
In the third, the Washington’s somewhat unpredictable offense found its finishing touch twice more.
Erat picked off a pass by Blue Jackets defenseman Nikita Nikitin as he looked to clear the zone and found Brouwer wide open in the slot. Bobrovsky stopped Brouwer’s first attempt but didn’t corral the rebound or react when the veteran winger snatched the puck, drifted to his right for a better look at the yawning cage and fired for a 3-0 advantage at the 4:20 mark.
A little more than two minutes later, with Dubinsky back in the penalty box for slashing Mikhail Grabovski, the Capitals’ power play struck again. Ovechkin recorded his seventh goal and 10th point of the season with a slapper blast from the left circle to put Washington firmly in control at 4-0. The Capitals’ control of the contest wasn’t threatened when Artem Anisimov ended Holtby’s shutout bid in the final five minutes of regulation, but the breakdown that caused the goal offered another opportunity to focus on the big picture after the victory.
“We’re not going to pat ourselves on the back for too long,” Laich said. “It’s a nice win, but we’re still sub .500 right now.”
Note: John Erskine missed a fourth consecutive game with an upper-body injury.