NEWARK — New Jersey goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood had Evgeny Kuznetsov on one side of him and T.J. Oshie on the other, and less than two minutes later, his Devils teammates were again outmanned as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson barreled toward him. The Washington Capitals are tough enough to defend, but when their most skilled players are allowed time and space as they were Tuesday night, good luck stopping them.
Capitalizing on their odd-man rushes in the second period, the Capitals jumped to a 4-1 lead against the New Jersey Devils and maintained that score for the win. Goaltender Pheonix Copley finished with 20 saves as his teammates limited New Jersey’s opportunities in front of him, especially over the game’s final 30 minutes.
“All lines scored, and that’s what you need,” Backstrom said. “We did a good job there in the second period; we got a lot of two-on-ones and three-on-twos, so that’s a sign we moved it well and moved it quick.”
The Capitals and New York Islanders entered Tuesday tied atop the Metropolitan Division with 91 points apiece. New York lost, 5-0, to visiting Boston, giving the Capitals the edge for now. Both clubs have nine games left.
“Every point is huge for us, so we’re doing a good job of taking care of business for the most part,” Wilson said.
The Capitals hosted the Devils earlier this month, and they learned not to sleep on a team just because it has a poor record. Although Washington ultimately prevailed, 3-0, that game was perhaps closer than one should’ve been between the team leading the Metropolitan and the one in last place with several of its top players out with injuries. Tuesday night’s matchup started similarly, with the clubs getting out of the first period tied at 1.
Left wing Andre Burakovsky unfurled a wrist shot into the top right corner of the net just 2:52 in to lift the Capitals to an early lead. It was his 12th goal of the season, matching his total from each of the past two seasons. Five of those goals have come in his past 12 games.
But just as Washington was about to escape an underwhelming period — despite a power play, the Capitals put just four pucks on Blackwood — ahead by a goal, New Jersey got the tying tally with one second left. A centering feed caromed off Capitals forward Carl Hagelin’s skate and right to Devils forward Kenny Agostino in the high slot, and he sniped the puck past Copley.
With this game being the first of a back-to-back set, Washington started Copley and saved top goaltender Braden Holtby for Wednesday’s home matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, which has clinched the NHL’s best regular season record. This was also an opportunity for redemption for Copley, who made his season debut at New Jersey’s Prudential Center in October. He didn’t play poorly that night, but he was still dinged for six goals in one of the Capitals’ most lopsided losses of the season.
Copley recovered well, entering Tuesday’s contest with 15 wins out of 21 starts in his rookie campaign, and Washington saw enough from him this season to sign him to a three-year, $3.3 million extension in February. And as the Capitals heated up offensively in the second period, Copley kept the Devils off the board, although he had to stop just five shots.
On a slick feed from Christian Djoos — playing his first game in nearly a month after replacing the resting Brooks Orpik on the blue line — forward Brett Connolly scored at the back door, giving Washington a 2-1 lead 5:57 into the second period. That was Connolly’s 20th goal of the season, giving him the first 20-goal campaign of his career. The Capitals have five players who have scored at least 20 goals this season, and with Backstrom and Kuznetsov nearing the mark, Washington could have seven 20-plus goal-scorers by the end of the season. The Capitals had just three last year.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Connolly said. “I had to work for things, and I had to push every year for that. It was obviously a good situation for me coming here and joining this group, and definitely very, very happy to get that one right away. I didn’t really want it to linger on [longer] than it should. It was just really, really good to see that one go in, for sure.”
Washington continued to pull away with its skill in the second period as New Jersey had some defensive breakdowns. Halfway through, Coach Todd Reirden flipped his top two centers, skating Backstrom with Ovechkin and Wilson while Kuznetsov anchored Oshie and Jakub Vrana. Both lines got on the board shortly after the change. First, on a two-on-one, Kuznetsov beat Blackwood with a shot through his legs for his 19th goal at 12:16. Seventy-two seconds later, Ovechkin set up Wilson’s 21st, also on an odd-man rush.
“I knew they were going to think I’m going to take the shot,” Ovechkin said. “He was in the right spot and the right position, and I just give it to him.”
Said Wilson: “I was ready to shoot, but I was like, ‘There’s no way he’s passing it.’ ”
That made it 4-1 through 40 minutes. Against the depleted Devils, that was sufficient cushion for the final period and the Capitals’ ninth win in 11 games.