T.J. Oshie, arguably the best in the business when he has the ice to himself and all eyes are on him, calmly skated toward Edmonton's net. The shootout specialist did what a shootout specialist is supposed to do — and lifted the Washington Capitals to a 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday night at Capital One Arena.
"It's funny," Edmonton goaltender Laurent Brossoit said. "I was told that Oshie likes to go five-hole in a shootout, so I was prepared for it, and he still snuck it through."
The skillful shot decided the game, but it was Washington's defensive play that won it. The Capitals managed just 19 shots on goal, but they neutralized Edmonton's electric young superstars, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, especially when the game went to overtime and those two had more open ice.
Goaltender Braden Holtby finished with 29 saves, and he had to make just one in overtime, the only shot of a miserable five-minute period. Washington was content to cycle the puck as long as it stayed off the sticks of McDavid and Draisaitl.
"I thought we played it smart," Holtby said. "That was probably the most boring three-on-three I've played. Everyone was just winding back and winding back. There was barely anything. It was kind of disappointing. But I thought we did a good job. You could tell they were just waiting for us to break down and use their speed and create odd-man rushes."
An exciting finish had a scoreless start for 40 minutes. Then, as a mass of bodies and sticks surrounded Holtby, the puck bounced off the stick of Washington's Alex Chiasson, and he inadvertently knocked it through Holtby instead of away from him. The goal was credited to Edmonton's Jujhar Khaira, giving the Oilers a 1-0 lead less than two minutes into the third period.
The Capitals didn't offer much of a test for Brossoit, a backup who hadn't started a game since Oct. 17, recording just 14 shots on goal through two periods. But less than four minutes after Edmonton's goal, Washington responded. Tom Wilson and defenseman Dmitry Orlov had a give-and-go play capped with Orlov sniping the tying goal past Brossoit.
"We're going to have to grind out wins," Wilson said. "We're going to have to play tight hockey. I thought our defense was really good against a pretty electric offense on their side. It says a lot about our team kind of holding them to one, pretty tightknit game."
Most of that can be credited to Holtby. In front of a bored crowd, he injected some life before the second intermission. Over the last 6:21 of the second period, the Oilers reeled off eight straight shots, and the Capitals couldn't manage one. Six of those shots came on one minute-long shift with 2:02 left in the second period, and five of those shots were within 12 feet of the net.
Capital One Arena responded with a standing ovation at the next stoppage, the crowd chanting, "Holt-by" with the game still somehow scoreless. Washington has leaned on its two-time Vezina Trophy finalist more this season, allowing 32.9 shots per game through the first 18 games, up more than five shots from a year ago. Holtby's job has been harder with a less experienced defense in front of him, but he nonetheless had maintained a .924 save percentage entering Sunday's game. He recorded the 200th win of this career against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday, which made him the second-fastest goaltender to reach that milestone.
"Holts is the best player every night for us," Wilson said. "He made some huge saves, obviously, but at this point that's a pleasure that we have — him showing up every night. We've got to do our best to kind of keep the shots to the perimeter, but he does a good job when they do have a scoring chance. As a team, I thought we did a good job. Holding that squad to one goal is pretty good."
It was the Capitals' game against the Oilers two weeks ago in Edmonton that sparked an early turning point in this young season. They rallied from a two-goal deficit in that game for one of their best performances, and after a rocky start to the year, Washington has won five of its past seven, including Sunday's game. That is due to the Capitals tightening up defensively, averaging 2.14 goals against in the past six games.
"We're getting on the same page," Holtby said. "Obviously every game is getting stronger. The biggest thing is we keep on it, keep growing, keep working on the small things. Those are the little things that win you games, and that's what's helping us right now."