This one wasn’t pretty, but at the blare of the final horn, the Washington Capitals again exited their bench, hugged their goaltender and lifted their sticks to celebrate a victory. During this six-game winning streak, Washington has prevailed in nail-biting fashion, in blowouts and in defensive struggles. On Friday, the Capitals beat the New Jersey Devils, 3-0, because they were simply better than their banged-up opponents — and because their goaltender was the best player on the ice.
On a night his team wasn’t always sharp, Braden Holtby was, making 25 saves for his third shutout.
“I thought Braden was outstanding right from the very beginning and gave us a chance to kind of settle in there,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “He was obviously a huge, huge difference-maker tonight.”
With the Capitals clinging to a 1-0 lead entering the third period, Devils forward Kenny Agostino was called for tripping at 3:23, and Washington finally seized an opportunity to pull away when center Nicklas Backstrom redirected John Carlson’s feed at the back door for his 17th goal at 4:35. Center Lars Eller added the final tally with an empty-netter in the final minute.
The Capitals held the Devils to five shots on goal in the third period, but their play to that point had been lackluster, in part because of poor ice conditions that hindered both teams.
With his team on a winning streak, Reirden has kept his lineup the same, including playing left wing Andre Burakovsky on the fourth line. That has been a successful experiment. The 24-year-old, who struggled for much of the first half of the season, scored his third goal in as many games Friday night. Defenseman Michal Kempny set up Burakovsky’s snipe from the left faceoff circle on a rush 2:40 into the game, and Washington held that lead the rest of the way.
Burakovsky has 11 goals and 12 assists on the season, with four goals and three assists coming in the past nine games. The Capitals are benefiting from having someone of his offensive skill on the fourth line.
“For him personally and for us a team, I think it’s great that he’s started scoring,” Backstrom said. “He’s got a terrific shot, I think. It’s good to see him get his confidence back. That’s the kind of player he is. He needs that confidence, and right now he’s playing really good hockey for us. I feel like this time of year, you need scoring from all the lines, and that’s what we get for now.”
The rest of the first period was forgettable for the Capitals. Against a Devils team that was missing six regulars — not to mention the players they dealt before the trade deadline last week — Washington had to count on Holtby to make several challenging saves.
The Capitals also failed to capitalize on their many opportunities. They had a five-on-three power play for 1:48 but got just one shot off. And 10 seconds after that man advantage ended, Washington was awarded another because New Jersey had too many men on the ice. The Capitals didn’t score on that chance, either.
Against a better opponent, squandering those opportunities probably would have loomed larger. Against the cellar-dwelling Devils, Washington was able to get away with it, even as the team took — and successfully killed — six minor penalties.
Play was often disjointed, but the Capitals put 13 shots on goal in the second period, all of which were turned away by Devils rookie Mackenzie Blackwood. Holtby made his fifth straight start; with the team’s next back-to-back set of games not until March 19-20, this seemed like a natural opportunity to play No. 2 netminder Pheonix Copley. But with his team rolling, Reirden decided to roll with Holtby.
“I was just trying to be into it right from the start,” Holtby said. “I know playing a team like them with a ton of injuries, you don’t really know. It’s hard. Sometimes you come out a little flat. I was just trying to be prepared thinking that might happen and be there, do my job.”
Although six of the Capitals’ past seven opponents are out of playoff position, Washington has a challenging schedule to finish the regular season. Ten of their remaining 14 games are against teams that are in the postseason mix, including three meetings with the NHL-best Tampa Bay Lightning. The Capitals remain atop the Metropolitan Division, but they know an effort such as this one against a less-depleted team likely would yield a different result.
“They all count the same,” Carlson said.
“I feel like games like this are going to happen,” Backstrom said. “Even if we didn’t play our best, it’s a good thing that we came out of it with two points. But we’re a smart group in here. We realize we can play a lot better. We’re going to take these two points and move forward.”
More on the Capitals:
Last time out: Caps start fast, then hold off Flyers for fifth straight win