At the sound of the goal horn and the sight of each other, Jakub Vrana and Travis Boyd both stretched their arms wide and jumped into a celebratory embrace. They both had badly needed that goal. Vrana, who scored it, was coming off a rough performance in his previous game and was demoted to the fourth line before this one. The silver lining was that he was reunited with his old center, Boyd, from the Washington Capitals’ farm team.
Boyd had patiently waited for his turn in the NHL, spending three years in the American Hockey League, and then he was hurt to start this season. In his season debut Monday night, he just wanted to help the team win and show he deserves to be in the lineup. Mission accomplished. Along with winger Devante Smith-Pelly, the Capitals’ new-look fourth line with Boyd and Vrana accounted for the first two goals of the game on its first two shifts, lifting Washington to an early lead it never relinquished in a 4-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers.
“I think we needed that win, and we knew they have a pretty good team,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Obviously, I think tonight the [Boyd] line set the tone. Two shifts, two goals. It’s pretty big.”
Though the Oilers were able to pull within one on two occasions, the Capitals were able to restore and then maintain that early two-goal cushion. Winger T.J. Oshie made it a 3-1 game in the second period after a spin-o-rama pass from center Nicklas Backstrom. Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl cut the lead to one again 2:30 later, but on a Capitals power play less than three minutes after that, Ovechkin one-timed a rebound that went straight to him in the left faceoff circle. He is tied for the NHL lead with 11 goals.
With the second line of Oshie, Backstrom and winger Chandler Stephenson, along with the top defensive pairing of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov, charged with containing superstar Oilers center Connor McDavid, Capitals goaltender Pheonix Copley made 31 saves to record the second win of his NHL career. McDavid scored his 10th goal of the season on a first-period power play, but the Capitals did a commendable job of limiting him at even strength.
Washington had lost two in a row going into Monday night’s game, so Coach Todd Reirden shuffled his forward trios, most notably promoting Dmitrij Jaskin to the top line beside center Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ovechkin. But it was the corresponding move that ultimately paid dividends for the Capitals.
Skating with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin on Saturday against the Dallas Stars, Vrana had been involved in two costly turnovers in what was ultimately a 4-3 overtime loss. Though Reirden never mentioned Vrana by name, he was critical of the 22-year-old, and he seemed to be sending another message when he dropped him to the fourth line against the Oilers.
“When you have a tough game like I had the game before, I try to just throw that behind me and just focus looking forward and focus on the next game, get my confidence back,” Vrana said. “Now this game is behind me, and I have a new battle in front of me.”
But the change also made sense because Boyd and Vrana have chemistry from when they played together for nearly two years with the Hershey Bears, Washington’s AHL affiliate. While competing for a roster spot in the preseason, Boyd injured his left foot blocking a shot and then missed the first month of the season.
Boyd drove the net on his first shift Monday, and though his shot was saved, Smith-Pelly corralled the puck and set up a wide-open Vrana in the slot for a 1-0 lead. Then Vrana and Boyd jumped into their embrace before Smith-Pelly joined them.
They made a statement on their next shift, too. Edmonton’s Jujhar Khaira had a defensive-zone turnover, and Boyd again got to the front of the net, then passed the puck back to Smith-Pelly. As Smith-Pelly unfurled a top-shelf shot, Boyd jumped out of the way, screening Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot in the process. Boyd had just one assist in eight career NHL games before Monday night. He had two in the first six minutes against Edmonton.
“To be completely honest, I was coming into the game hoping to score or hoping to score a point,” Boyd said. “I just wanted to feel comfortable and get back to the game reads and get back to the speed of the game. It’s just a bonus that our line was able to pop a couple tonight.”
After Washington had to rally from two-goal deficits in back-to-back games, the Capitals finally had that cushion for themselves thanks to some much-needed depth scoring.
“Something we were looking for in particular against this opponent and even moving forward into Wednesday [against Pittsburgh], just having four lines that could provide different elements to them,” Reirden said. “I just really loved the response by Vrana. He and Boyd have had some chemistry in the past playing together. Smith-Pelly had a real strong game as well. That’s what you need. You need to have different lines contributing every night.”