COLUMBUS, Ohio — Alex Ovechkin already had claimed the NHL lead for goals earlier in the game, so as he and winger Travis Boyd barreled down the ice on a two-on-one, Ovechkin showed off a less-appreciated part of his game. With every Columbus Blue Jackets player expecting Ovechkin to shoot, he passed, setting up a wide-open Boyd for the first goal of Boyd’s career.
Ovechkin raised his arms, celebrating as if he were the one who just scored. To set up that play, he had picked the puck off Columbus defenseman Ryan Murray in the neutral zone. It was fitting that one of the Washington Capitals’ most resounding wins of the season came on a night the captain did a little bit of everything.
“He’s really been, night in and night out, a guy that’s played at both ends of the ice and really given us a chance to have success,” Coach Todd Reirden said.
With first place in the Metropolitan Division at stake in the matchup between its two top teams, the Capitals extended their lead with a 4-0 win over the Blue Jackets using the same formula that helped them ascend to the top spot. There was strong goaltending from Braden Holtby, who recorded 28 saves in his second shutout of the season; there was the depth scoring from wingers Brett Connolly, Dmitrij Jaskin and Boyd; and then there was Ovechkin, who extended his point streak to 11 games, the second longest of his career, with a goal and an assist.
Washington has found ways to win without its top center, its top two right wings and even its starting goaltender, but the Capitals have yet to win a game when Ovechkin hasn’t recorded at least a point. Fortunately for them, with 22 goals and 14 assists, he is on pace for his best season since 2009-10, when he was 24.
“The points are one thing, but to me, it’s the leadership he’s building on from last year,” Reirden said. “Obviously a lot was made of his leadership with us winning the Stanley Cup and the role that he had in it, but his leadership during the regular season this year has been the best I’ve seen it. That says a lot about him and how he’s really leading the way. He’s been more vocal, and obviously his play has been exceptional.”
As the Capitals have grown accustomed to playing without key cogs of their lineup — the full roster hasn’t been available all season — Reirden has preached to his players that they need to take advantage of their opportunities with injuries depleting the forward corps. Washington has needed every bit of its depth of late, and perhaps no one has stepped up more than wingers Connolly and Jakub Vrana.
With right wings Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie both sidelined with concussions, Connolly and Vrana have helped replace the missing scoring while skating on a second line with center Evgeny Kuznetsov. On that trio’s first shift, Connolly and Vrana had a two-on-one, and as Connolly carried the puck into the offensive zone, he chose to keep the puck for himself. Columbus defenseman Scott Harrington started sliding to block the shot, but Connolly was patient, maneuvering around Harrington and the outstretched pad of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to slip the puck across the goal line for a 1-0 lead just 1:42 into the game.
That extended Connolly’s point streak to four games. Vrana, who came in with three goals in his past two games, recorded the primary helper. Connolly has 18 points through 29 games, on pace to eclipse the career high he set last season with 27 points in 70 games.
“One thing we never really doubted was our depth, especially even in [American Hockey League affiliate] Hershey,” Holtby said. “If need be, there are some guys there that are more than ready to make the step up. That’s why we’ve had success in the past — we’re a deep roster — and every good team has to be deep. You’re going to have injuries in this game, and you have to fight through it and not use it as an excuse but grow your team and [find] different ways to win.”
Washington’s next goal came from its fourth line. Boyd banked a shot in off Jaskin’s foot for a 2-0 lead 10:19 into the game, and Jaskin seemed to exhale as he celebrated with teammates. The Capitals claimed him off waivers before the season, and in his 23rd game he scored his first goal with the team, motioning as if he were throwing a monkey off his back as he skated over to the bench.
And while secondary scoring has been necessary with Washington especially banged up over the past month, Ovechkin has been a constant in every Capitals win. With less than 20 seconds left in the first period, he went to the front of the net, redirecting defenseman Michal Kempny’s pass for his league-leading 22nd goal. When the second period started, Bobrovsky was on the bench, yanked in favor of Joonas Korpisalo, who allowed Boyd’s goal in the third period.
“Obviously a night I’ll always remember,” Boyd said of scoring his first goal. “It’s pretty cool how it worked out for me, having my first assist be on an Ovi goal [March 18], and then he feeds me a beautiful pass and had a wide-open net for my first goal. It’s pretty cool.”
These two teams met in the first round of the playoffs last season, and the Blue Jackets had the Capitals on the ropes after they won the first two games of the series in Washington. But then the Capitals turned to Holtby in net after Philipp Grubauer had been named the postseason starter initially, and he backstopped the team to four straight wins en route to an eventual Stanley Cup championship.
Holtby has again looked strong and steady. He struggled some in the first month of the season, but he entered Saturday’s game with a .919 save percentage and a 2.74 goals against average since Nov. 1. When the Capitals had breakdowns against Columbus, he made up for them, stopping 17 shots through the first two periods. He turned away 11 more in the third period, and as blue-clad fans exited Nationwide Arena, they booed, frustrated with a Columbus team that was again bested by Washington.
“It was a strong game from our full group tonight, from top to bottom,” Reirden said. “Obviously Holtby played exceptional, as well, and it was a strong team effort from us tonight.”