It’s tradition that the Washington Capitals celebrate wins by lining up in front of goaltender Braden Holtby, each player giving him a hug and a tap on the head while they also congratulate each other. The ritual was especially appropriate after Saturday night’s 4-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, a victory made possible because of the goaltender and a lineup-wide scoring effort.
“That was a good team over there that we just beat,” forward Brett Connolly said. “It just proves that we can beat anyone.”
With contributions from all four lines, the Capitals beat the Metropolitan Division’s top team for their fourth win in five games, a sign that perhaps the team has turned a corner a little more than a quarter of the way through the season.
The Capitals are not yet the dominant team they were a year ago, when they rolled to the league’s best record for a second straight season. But Washington did show flashes of its former self against Columbus — using a balanced scoring display with two goals from a slumping bottom-six forward corps. Any deficiencies were covered up by Holtby, whom Coach Barry Trotz called the “best player on the ice” after he made 32 saves.
“I never mention the word ‘measuring stick’ to our guys,” Trotz said. “We’re playing some quality opponents right now. . . . Four of the five teams we’re up against in the next little while are four of the top five teams in the National Hockey League defensively. It’s hard to score on those teams. They either have an exceptional goaltender or a good system, or a real good defense. They have all those elements that make them really good. We have to work for our goals. Tonight, we jumped on them early and were able to use that to our advantage.”
The Capitals raced out to a 2-0 lead in the first 2:06 of the game, and that boded well for the rest of the night with Washington 9-0-1 when leading at first intermission. But Washington lost the lead in the second period. A disastrous shift, in which rookie defenseman Christian Djoos nearly scored an own goal and the Capitals’ fourth line repeatedly failed to clear the puck out of the Washington zone against Columbus’s first line, resulted in a goal by Artemi Panarin.
Then, on Washington’s first power play, T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom had back-to-back defensive-zone turnovers, and Matt Calvert capitalized with a shorthanded goal that tied the game 16:28 into the second period. The Capitals got another power play with less than a minute to play in the period. This time, Alex Ovechkin scored from his sweet spot in the left faceoff circle, putting Washington back on top at intermission.
On the second shift of the third period, Evgeny Kuznetsov and defenseman John Carlson broke free with just the goaltender in front of them. Kuznetsov scored easily to restore the two-goal lead, celebrating by twirling his fist in the air as if he had a lasso. Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski made it a one-goal game with 3:02 left, but Washington withstood the late-game push from the Blue Jackets, thanks to 16 saves from Holtby in just the third period.
“The game was very tight, especially first two periods,” Ovechkin said. “They have advantage, we have advantage. In the third period it was very important goal for us, Kuzy scored. We knew when Holts play like that, it’s very hard to score against him. He save us and he give us two points.”
With the Capitals coming off a 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, Coach Barry Trotz made some lineup tweaks before Saturday’s game. The top-six forwards were untouched, but Washington’s bottom two lines have lacked consistency, with the fourth line producing just four even-strength goals all year — not including ones on an empty net. Trotz had been experimenting with the third line over the past week, scratching Connolly for two games.
But with the trio of center Lars Eller with Devante Smith-Pelly and Tyler Graovac playing poorly in Thursday’s game, Trotz put Connolly back in the lineup and created a new third line with Eller centering him and Chandler Stephenson. Stephenson didn’t play in the third period, out because of an upper-body injury that will be reevaluated on Sunday.
After Connolly scored a career-high 15 goals last season, earning a two-year deal, he had gotten off to a slow start this season with just two goals and two assists through 17 games. Connolly took advantage of his opportunity back in the lineup. On that third line’s first shift of the game, Eller won a battle along the boards, flinging the puck into the center of the ice. Connolly collected it in the slot, beating goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky with a wrist shot. That put the Capitals up 1-0 just 63 seconds into the game.
Then, 1:03 later, Alex Chiasson beat Bobrovsky in similar fashion, with a wrist shot directly in front of the net. Bobrovsky is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s best goaltender, and he is a front-runner to win the award again. He entered the game against the Capitals 6-1-0 with a 1.13 goals against average and a .961 save percentage in his past seven starts.
But his numbers have been historically mediocre against Washington — 6-7-4 with a 3.02 goals against average and a .905 save percentage over his career. That wasn’t even including Saturday’s result, when he got outdueled by the goaltender in the opposite net.
“Braden was the reason we won,” Trotz said. “He was the best player on the ice tonight. I thought he fought through traffic. I thought he was really strong in a lot of areas.”