The orange cap rocketed off of Los Angeles goaltender Peter Budaj’s water bottle fastened to the back of the net, and the contents spilled onto the ice. In disgust, Kings forward Trevor Lewis swatted at that orange plastic.
Capitals forward T.J. Oshie had slammed a bouncing puck over Budaj’s left shoulder, and the black disc hit the water bottle with such force that it burst. It seemed to be a perfect exclamation point, a literal splash, to Washington’s 5-0 win over the Kings, even though the Capitals added another goal after it. When the third period started, Budaj took a seat on the bench in a baseball cap, the latest netminder to fall victim to Washington’s potent offense.
“I think everybody, once they’re on the ice, they think they can score a goal right now,” Capitals forward Lars Eller said.
There were five goal-scorers, and goaltender Philipp Grubauer made 38 saves for his third shutout of the season. It was the kind of clinical performance that has become expected from this red-hot Washington team that sits atop the NHL standings with 78 points, seven points clear of second-place Columbus in the Metropolitan Division. The Capitals have gotten at least a point in 18 of their past 20 games, often routing quality opponents.
“It’s definitely not something I’ve experienced before playing on any other teams,” Eller said. “It just speaks to how everybody wants more. We want more all of the time. You want to score another goal. You see another line score, next line wants to go out there and do the same thing. I think that never-getting-satisfied attitude is a key for us and one of our strengths.”
Grubauer was the Capitals’ most impressive player. While Washington capitalized on its chances, the Kings had more of them. His 38 saves are the most he has made in a game this season, and the win improved his record to 10-3-2. With the NHL schedule especially compressed this year, Grubauer has had more consistent playing time, which has benefited him. It has also allowed Braden Holtby’s workload to be reduced, potentially keeping him fresher for the postseason.
Holtby hasn’t started both games of a back-to-back set all season, in part because Grubauer’s play has been so impressive that there is little dropoff. With Washington holding a 3-0 lead in the second period, Kings forward Marian Gaborik drove to the net and his shot bounced off Grubauer’s body. Grubauer then dove and belly-flopped onto the ice to cover the loose puck. The Verizon Center crowd responded with appreciative applause.
“He’s been playing well all year for us when he’s been out there,” Capitals forward Marcus Johansson said. “Real solid. It’s awesome. To have two goalies like that, that’s a luxury, I think. Right from the start, you could see that he was in it. That’s obviously a great feeling to have.”
The Kings arrived in Washington on a five-game winning streak, and they had allowed just three goals in those games. Budaj, starting his second game in less than 24 hours, was on a shutout streak, and Eller snapped it less than four minutes into the game. Brett Connolly passed a puck through Jeff Carter’s legs to Eller all alone in front. Eller had enough time to get the puck and then make three moves with it before putting it past Budaj.
That ended the shutout streak at 147:21, and it gave Washington an early lead. It marked Eller’s ninth goal of the season and his sixth in the past 13 games. The team’s third line of Eller, Connolly and Burakovsky has 18 goals in the past 14 games — six goals for each player — answering the organization’s call for more secondary scoring.
“We’ve been really, really good,” Connolly said. “You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself, but it’s been a lot of fun. They’ve been really good, and we’ve been working with each other every day. We’re getting better. Two guys that work hard and want to be better and care, and it’s making a difference. We’re definitely being a difference in games, and that’s what we’re going to need.”
After Johansson’s stick snapped in half as he attempted to take a shot in the first period, he got redemption with less than two minutes left in the frame. Justin Williams picked the perfect moment to come into Budaj’s line of sight, distracting him as Johansson beat him blocker side for a 2-0 lead at first intermission.
“He obviously has been lifting weights, snapped that stick,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “Then he got an opportunity in that exact same spot and he buried it.”
The Capitals poured it on in the second period. Connolly scored his 10th goal of the season on a two-on-one with Tom Wilson. Just as the Kings seemed to be making a push, Oshie silenced it with his water-bottle shattering slap shot. Taking advantage of an uncharacteristically porous defense, Williams added a third-period goal against his former team.
“I think every line is producing and playing the right way,” Johansson said. “I think there’s just so much confidence throughout the whole group. Everybody just goes out and plays. I think when we do that, we play the right way in our own end and you don’t really have to worry about trying to try a little extra to score those goals. It’s just going to come naturally when you play the right way. That’s the way it’s been going lately, and that’s a good feeling to have on the team.”