Goaltender Philipp Grubauer might have one regret about Tuesday’s game against Vancouver: When he had a chance to shoot on an open Canucks net, he didn’t take it. With the way things have been going for the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena lately, perhaps he could have tallied the first goal of his career.
“I’m not looking to score a goal, but I had so much time and I should have shot it,” Grubauer said with a chuckle.
“I always love when goalie try to score,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said wistfully.
Washington’s 3-1 victory over Vancouver on Tuesday night gives the Capitals 10 straight wins at home — the longest home win streak in the NHL this season — and they are the only team in the league without a home loss since the beginning of December. Washington’s win, which wasn’t as close as the score indicated, keeps the team in sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division. The only thing missing was the goaltender scoring.
“It’s important for the team, but it’s also important for the fans,” Coach Barry Trotz said of the home win streak. “You want them to have something to come back and see again. We’re in the entertainment business. We want to win. We want to entertain. We want to send you home happy. And I think teams get energy from their building, and like many other teams I think we get energy from our home building and our fans. So if you can perform well in front of your fans, they’re going to give you good energy. And you should play well if you’re a good hockey team.”
The Capitals certainly looked like a good hockey team Tuesday. In the second period, Kuznetsov shot at Vancouver goaltender Jacob Markstrom, and the puck bounced off Markstrom’s chest. Kuznetsov stayed with the rebound, and just as he tried to swat it in with his stick, Canucks defenseman Erik Gudbranson tried to bat the puck down with his glove. It fluttered off Markstrom’s shoulder and into the net to give the Capitals a 3-1 lead 4:57 into the period.
Kuznetsov’s goal was the only one Washington got in a dominating middle frame, when the Capitals outshot the Canucks 18-4 and seemed to be toying with Vancouver. Washington had several odd-man rushes but over-passed at times and ran into a determined goaltender on other opportunities. By the end of the period, the Capitals had a whopping 29 shots through 40 minutes.
“I think we controlled the game pretty much,” Kuznetsov said. “Sometimes you have lots of chances, you don’t score. Sometimes you have a few chances and you score. It happens sometimes.”
The Canucks have the second-fewest standings points in the Western Conference, but they also routed the Capitals, 6-2, when these two teams played in late October. Washington has found its game since those early-season struggles, ascending to the top of its division with a 15-3-2 record in the 20 games entering Tuesday’s tilt.
But after Devante Smith-Pelly was called for hooking and then the Capitals were assessed a bench minor for too many men on the ice, the Canucks took advantage in their 1:08 of five-on-three play. Defenseman Alexander Edler’s point shot was tipped by Daniel Sedin, skipping over Grubauer and into the net 8:23 into the game.
“We’ve had a bit of a bad habit of not playing very good when we play against teams that are low in the standings, so we talked about that before,” center Lars Eller said. “We were able to play well enough to come out with two points, so that was satisfying.”
This is the last week before the Capitals’ five-day bye week, so Trotz wanted to get Grubauer some action to avoid too long a layoff between starts. Grubauer is also expected to be in net in one of Washington’s two games against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday and Friday. Grubauer entered Tuesday with a .962 save percentage and a 1.00 goals against average in his previous five appearances. He finished with 37 saves.
After Vancouver’s early tally, the Capitals provided Grubauer some support late in the first period. In a strange play, Nicklas Backstrom knocked Vancouver’s Nic Dowd into the back of the Canucks’ cage, causing it to tip forward onto Markstrom. Vancouver defenseman Michael Del Zotto then held onto the crossbar, inadvertently trapping Markstrom inside. The net never came off its moorings, and just as Del Zotto let go of the crossbar to allow the net to fall back in place, Washington’s John Carlson shot Backstrom’s cross-ice pass past Markstrom. There were several video reviews of the goal, and it ultimately counted.
Less than three minutes after Carlson’s tying goal, Eller carried the puck up the ice, toe-dragged around one Vancouver defenseman and then beat Markstrom, recording his 200th career point on the go-ahead goal. He now has seven goals this season, a contract year for the 28-year-old.
Shortly after Eller took a seat on the bench, “Eye of the Tiger” was blasted in Capital One Arena, an ode to Eller’s “Tiger” nickname given to him by his teammates. Some members of Washington’s bench noticed the song choice, one of the comforts of being at home. The Capitals extended their overall win streak to five games.
“Definitely this stretch has been our best of the year,” Eller said. “Has this game been our best of the year? I don’t know, but it’s definitely up there.”
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