WINNIPEG, MANITOBA — The Washington Capitals arrived here for back-to-back games against the Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg Jets knowing their postseason aspirations couldn’t withstand a pair of losses. Their desperation was reflected in their play; they came out flying.
For a full 60 minutes the Capitals adhered to the tenets of Coach Adam Oates’s system, looking every bit like the relentless team he envisioned. The Capitals chipped and chased, forced turnovers, closed gaps and worked together as five-man units to provide ample support in all three zones en route to a 4-0 win over the Jets at MTS Centre on Thursday night.
Alex Ovechkin was a constant presence in the game and recorded a goal and two assists while Braden Holtby finished with a 20-save shutout, blanking the Jets for a second consecutive game. The Capitals have outscored the Jets 7-0 in the past two meetings, both times in Winnipeg.
“It was very important game, it show the character of our team and I think we play great on [all] sides — defensively, neutral zone and offensively,” Ovechkin said. “Right now for us it’s a desperate time. Every point is very important and everybody understands.”
The Capitals (13-16-1) also received help from the rest of the Eastern Conference in the form of losses by Carolina and the New York Rangers. With 27 points, Washington sits five points back of the eighth-place Rangers and seven behind Winnipeg.
Fully aware of the stakes in this 48-hour span, Washington had a businesslike attitude heading into Thursday’s contest with the Jets. The contest featured the Capitals’ most complete lineup of the season, with forward Brooks Laich and defenseman Mike Green in the mix together for the first time.
It was Green’s first appearance since Feb. 27 when he aggravated a groin injury that caused him to miss 10 straight games, and his presence gave the Capitals a more balanced blue line. Able to roll defensive pairings and four lines, each shift managed to pick up where the previous one left off for the duration of the contest, limiting Winnipeg to low-percentage shots offensively or hemming it deep in its own zone for extended periods of time.
“It was one of the best [games] for us,” said Nicklas Backstrom, who scored his fourth goal in the third period. “60 minutes we stayed together, worked together and that’s what you’ve got to do if you’re going to win.”
The Capitals took an initial 1-0 lead 3 minutes 6 seconds into the contest on Troy Brouwer’s 11th goal. Defenseman Grant Clitsome turned the puck over behind the Jets’ net to Brouwer, who left it for Laich but quickly received the puck back from his linemate.
Brouwer carried it out from behind the net to the left circle where he fired an unassuming wrister that found its way through while Laich was out front causing chaos.
Establishing that early edge allowed Washington to double down its focus on the details of its game plan. The Capitals continued to generate consistent offense in the first, creating rushes off of the Jets’ turnovers all the while minimizing Holtby’s workload. On the rare occasion Winnipeg did get a quality scoring chance — the best in the first 40 minutes was by Antti Miettinen on a two-on-one — Holtby turned it aside with ease.
Smart work by the first line upped the Capitals advantage late in the first period. Ovechkin gained control of the puck along the right side boards after a turnover by Evander Kane and as the Washington captain drifted toward the circle instead of shooting the puck himself he found Marcus Johansson driving to the net. Johansson put his stick on the ice for a deflection that put Washington up 2-0 with 3:38 remaining in the first.
“The start was everything, really,” Oates said. “The start obviously helps you get into your game and I thought we had a real good pace in the first period. Frustrated them, came out in the second obviously between periods they’re going to get talked to by their coach and they’re going to come a little harder and we had to be ready for that and match their intensity and we did a good job of it.”
The two teams combined for only seven shots in the second period, with Washington recording only three. The visitors still stayed the course with committed back-checking. In the final five minutes of the period, in case being smothered wasn’t enough to demoralize Winnipeg, Ovechkin elevated the physical play.
On one shift, Ovechkin crunched Jets winger Bryan Little along the left boards in the offensive zone and then in the opposite end of the ice he crushed defenseman Mark Stuart.
In the third period Ovechkin added a goal for insurance, one of his patented one-timer blasts on the power play for a 3-0 lead with just less than six minutes remaining. He then set up Backstrom’s tally for the final flourish in the final two minutes of play.
For as strong an outing as the Capitals’ victory over Winnipeg was, the true challenge rests on them being able to do it all again Friday against an angry, frustrated foe.
“That’s the point of the season where we’re at we have to do it every night, this game is over now. It’s in the past. We move on,” Holtby said. “We can’t live on how well we played today we have to prepare and play at least as good as we did tonight, tomorrow.”
Capitals note: The team will waive winger Joey Crabb on Friday with the intent of assigning him to the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears should he clear waivers by noon Saturday. Washington designated Crabb as a non-roster player Thursday in order to activate Green from injured reserve and add him to the 23-man active roster.