Stay the course. Pay no attention to the results on the scoreboard. That was Coach Adam Oates’s message through five games as the Washington Capitals struggled to create offense and clean up their play.
Monday night, the Capitals proved his patience was well founded.
The Capitals recorded their first regulation win of the season and equaled their goal total from the previous three games thanks to a balanced showing of two power-play and two even-strength goals, all by different scorers. Goaltender Braden Holtby put on a strong performance as well, finishing with 28 saves in his first victory in five starts.
“We feel confidence here. Of course we was kind of upset about the beginning of the year, we start the games and we win only one game,” said Alex Ovechkin, who recorded his sixth goal and third assist of the season. “It’s good group of guys here, and we just have to stay confident and play our way. The guys who didn’t score beginning of the year scored big goals for us, and you can see the spark.”
It took time for Washington to assert itself against the speedy young Oilers, though, as it continued its troubling trend of lacking poise in the opening minutes of a game.
The Capitals didn’t muster a shot on Edmonton goaltender Jason LaBarbera (16 saves) until 6 minutes 14 seconds had passed. More concerning than the shot differential was that every Capitals line, with the exception of the fourth, spent the majority of their shifts trapped in the defensive zone. The Oilers took advantage of the lopsided play and took a 1-0 lead on a wrist shot by former Capital Boyd Gordon that beat Holtby low to his blocker side with 9:48 gone in the first.
Still looking for anything to build from, the Capitals got the break they needed four minutes later. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who was pressured by Mikhail Grabovski, made a careless clearing attempt that Steve Oleksy picked off at the blue line and sent on to Brooks Laich between the hash marks. The Capitals utility forward turned to snap a shot that slipped between LaBarbera’s feet to even the score at 1 with his first goal of the season.
The goal ignited the Capitals. Their checks were heavier, their passes went tape to tape, they spent quality time in the offensive zone and were able to enter the intermission tied despite the uneven start.
In the second period, Holtby bolstered the Capitals’ confidence when he dove to make a stunning save on David Perron after a rebound had popped out to his left. Holtby’s sparkling stop kept the game tied and gave his teammates an opportunity to build a lead of their own.
“I just tried to get over there as quick as I could,” Holtby said. “It’s the type of save I hadn’t been making in the last few games, to try and keep the game at 1-1 at that point. That’s my job. That’s my job to make those saves.”
Two minutes after Holtby’s save, Joel Ward converted on the power play with a one-timer off a slick feed from Nicklas Backstrom down low to make it 2-1 at 10:06.
After they gained the lead, the Capitals’ offense was off. Their next shot, an Ovechkin blast from the slot with Backstrom occupying the attention of Oilers defenders in front of the net, made it 3-1 at 13:18 of the second.
Then it was Troy Brouwer’s turn to get on the board for the first time this season. With Washington back on the power play, Brouwer teed up a shot from his primary residence in the slot that trickled past LaBarbera’s left foot. In the span of 3:55, the Capitals fired three shots and scored three goals to take a commanding 4-1 lead.
“Teams have been doing that to us this season, getting one then two couple quick ones,” Ward said. “It’s good to be on the other side of it.”
The Oilers added a goal by Will Acton in garbage time, after things became heated between the teams, who will meet again in 10 days in Edmonton.
Ovechkin delivered a hit on Mike Brown with 12:19 gone in the final period and then was confronted by the Oilers winger. That sparked a pileup of every other skater on the ice. Ovechkin, who received an interference minor, wound up in the penalty box along with Brown, Mike Green, Karl Alzner and Luke Gazdic, who all received two minutes for roughing.
But for the Capitals, the fireworks were overshadowed by the result, and by the knowledge that it was a result of sticking to their game plan.
“That was big. Obviously it’s been a struggle to get wins to start here, and I thought we played a fairly good game today and we deserved the win, I think, with the way we played,” Holtby said. “Still a lot to work on and a lot to improve on, but this was a big building step for us.”
Capitals notes: John Erskine missed a second consecutive game with what the team will only describe as an upper-body injury.