With a greatly improved overall performance from earlier in the week and an outburst of even strength offense, the Capitals claimed a 4-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers Thursday night to extend their winning streak to three games.
Onward to Calgary, where the Capitals will practice on Friday and then take on the Flames at the Saddledome Saturday night.
But first, five thoughts on Washington’s win in Edmonton.
1. Holtby’s first trip to Edmonton. Playing in front of countless family and friends who made the two-and-a-half hour journey West from Lloydminster, Saskatchewan native Braden Holtby put forth another strong outing and finished with 30 saves in his fifth consecutive start. While Justin Schultz snapped his shutout bid with 2:04 remaining in regulation, Holtby came through with composed stops in the early stages of the game as Washington worked through a shaky start to give his teammates time to find their rhythm and adapt to the Oilers’ speed.
Edmonton pushed in waves, particularly in the early stages of the second period with the Capitals holding a one-goal lead. But in addition to being able to handle the rapid passing plays himself, Holtby got the support that wasn’t present in Winnipeg.
“They’re a patient offensive team and a very skilled team, they’re not scared to try and make that extra pass for an open net,” Holtby said. “We did a good job of getting a last-minute stick on it or whatnot. They had a few that could have easily been open nets and we did a good job of that.”
Even with his own personal cheering section in Rexall Place, Holtby did what he could to act as though this contest was like any other.
“It’s pretty special. This is the rink I grew up watching NHL games in. It’s been pretty cool to be here and playing,” Holtby said. “But it’s been a while since I’ve been here so I tried not to focus on the fact that it’s that rink and there’s a lot of people here to watch.”
The first few starts of the season weren’t nearly as crisp as Holtby would have liked, which he’s the first to admit. But as the Capitals pass the 10-game mark, the 24-year-old netminder is renewed as the reliable and calming presence that made him Coach Adam Oates’s go-to option in net last season.
He’s improving with each start. (Keep an eye out for any play that makes him go side-to-side next game. The familiarity with the new footwork he and Olie Kolzig are working to add to his game appears to be making for more precise timing and economy of movement.) Over the past five contests he’s allowed more than two goals just once and stopped 172 of the 182 shots he’s faced in that span.
2. Offense, first line edition. Alex Ovechkin continued to roll, recording his 10th goal of the season in Edmonton. But any game in which two members of the top line convert — particularly at even strength, like they did in Edmonton — is a welcome development.
Nicklas Backstrom won a battle against Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in front in the third period for a tap in after Marcus Johansson sent the puck from the left wing to the blue paint. It was Backstrom’s second goal of the season and first five on five. Through 10 games, the group has combined for 12 goals and 25 assists.
They also look to be reaching a point where the chemistry between the three of them is visible on a majority of their shifts, as passes flow smoothly and effortlessly find their marks. Backstrom and Johansson are still looking to set up Ovechkin more often than not – given the way he’s scoring, it’s tough to be overly critical of that logic – but they’re all involved in what they’re creating.
Still, imagine how just a few more shot attempts by Backstrom and Johansson would limit an opponent’s ability to cheat toward Ovechkin and give them all more room to work with.
3. Offense, third line edition. When John Carlson fired a shot into traffic in front during the second period in Edmonton, it was all but impossible from the media gondola at Rexall Place to tell whether Jason Chimera or Joel Ward had redirected the puck past Devan Dubnyk for a 2-0 lead. Even down at ice level, the official scorers gave the goal to Chimera.
“It was really hard to let him know,” a smiling Ward said after the game, of having to tell Chimera he tipped the puck as well. “It’s his hometown, and the way he celebrated I really didn’t have the heart to tell him.”
Chimera said he heard the tip, though, so the Capitals made sure that the official scoresheet listed the second tally as Ward’s, and before too long, the Edmonton native would add a goal of his own.
In the third period, Mikhail Grabovski found Chimera making his way up ice and sent a pass to the speedster, who skated in and ripped a shot over Dubnyk’s shoulder. It marked Chimera’s third goal and ninth point against Edmonton since he left the Oilers following the 2003-04 season.
“Maybe make a mental note, play like it’s Edmonton every game,” joked Chimera, who had more than 50 friends and family at Rexall Place for his homecoming. “It’s always fun when there’s friends and family are in the stands, your parents are here, and it’s always fun to play here.”
More to come on the third line, which has been one of the Capitals’ more consistent units throughout the first 10 games, a little later today.
4. Another iffy start. The Capitals worked their way through it, but the first period in Edmonton left plenty to be desired. Whether it was the ice or the Oilers themselves, the speed seemed to catch Washington flat-footed multiple times. Occasionally, most noticeably against the third defensive pairing of John Erskine and Steve Oleksy, Edmonton’s speed allowed it to trap the Capitals in its own zone for extended shifts.
Oates contributed some of it to the uncertainties of an unfamiliar rink and also the altitude in Edmonton for players “seizing up” in the early stages. While the damage was minimal, he wants to see the Capitals controlling a contest from the start.
“It wasn’t that bad tonight,” Oates said, “but we’re still feeling the game out a little bit instead of trying to dictate the play initially.”
5. Special teams. Don’t look now, but the Capitals’ penalty kill has thwarted 16 consecutive power-play opportunities and is ranked second in the league with an 88.2 percent success rate. Last season, shorthanded play was one of Washington’s greatest liabilities – the Capitals finished 2012-13 ranked 27th in the league at 77.9 percent — even though the team did begin to gradually improve on the penalty kill late in the regular season.
The unit thwarted three Oilers power plays Thursday night. While Edmonton’s man advantage has struggled and is a paltry 5 for 39 (12.8 percent) on the season, the group had three opportunities at key junctures of the game when the game was still scoreless: early in the second when the Capitals held a 1-0 lead, and again after Ward’s tally made it 2-0.
Give up a goal in any of those scenarios and the Oilers have life, changing the trajectory of the contest.