They have life in them yet.
The Washington Capitals avoided elimination from the post-season on Tuesday night when they defeated the St. Louis Blues, 4-1, at Scottrade Center in St. Louis. It was a case of the big guns stepping up – Alex Oveckhin recorded his 50th goal, Nicklas Backstrom scored twice, and Braden Holtby took advantage of an unexpected start to stop 28 of 29 shots to get his 22nd win of the season.
Ovechkin got the Caps on the board first late in the second period on a power play after St. Louis missed a chance for a shorthanded goal at the other end. After Vladimir Sobotka’s shorthanded drive sailed high and wide over Holtby’s blocker, the Caps took the puck the other way and reset their 1-3-1 power play formation. John Carlson laid out the puck to the left wing circle where Ovechkin one-timed it to the far side past goalie Ryan Miller’s glove, off the pipe, and in for the game’s first tally.
St. Louis got it back early in the second period when, for what seemed to be part of a never-ending loop of film this season, the Caps could not clear the puck out of their own end. Steve Ott finally held the puck in at the left point and threw to the Washington net. Julien Brouillette tried to block the shot, but the puck slid past where Maxim Lapierre kicked it to his stick and flicked it past Holtby to tie the game.
Less than six minutes later the Caps regained the lead they would not give back. It was all Mikhail Grabovski. The Caps center-turned-winger skated the puck into the Blues zone and dialed his own number for a shot on Miller from the high slot. He whiffed on the attempt but maintained control of the puck, turning through the left wing circle. He stopped, looked over the defense, and with Eric Fehr occupying Alex Pietrangelo in the left wing circle, Grabovski stepped up and fired the puck past Miller to make it 2-1, Caps.
Then, the Hammer of Thor pounded the Blues into submission (geez, cuz… a little much, huh?). In the space of 96 seconds spanning the second and third periods, Nicklas Backstrom ended the suspense over whether the Caps could hold their lead. At the 18:50 mark of the period, the Caps finished a play that took advantage of a gambit that has been played on them over much of the season – gaining the offensive zone with speed. Alex Ovechkin skated the puck smartly down the right wing into the Blues’ zone, leading a three-man rush. As Ovechkin moved the puck down the wall, Backstrom was filling in the middle. With Barrett Jackman backing in too low in the slot and T.J. Oshie unable to close the distance from behind in time, Backstrom took a feed from Ovechkin between the circles and snapped the puck off the far post and in to make it 3-1.
That would not be the last consequential action of the second period. Jaden Schwartz got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, or more precisely on John Carlson’s stick, with 53 seconds left in the period to put the Blues down a man for the rest of the frame and to start the third period. Just 16 seconds into the final period Backstrom put the cherry on the sundae by finishing off a fine three-man passing play. John Carlson started it at the top of the offensive zone by hinting at a shot, then sending the puck to Alex Ovechkin in the left wing circle. Having been burned already by Ovechkin on a one-timer earlier in the game, the entire Blues defense slid toward Ovechkin. However, Ovechkin more-or-less one timed a pass through the middle to Backstrom on the right wing. Backstrom inched to his left to improve his shooting angle and take advantage of a developing screen in front of Ryan Miller. Backstrom snapped off a shot, and it pinged off the far post and in to give the Caps their last goal of the evening in the 4-1 win.
-- It figures that Ovechkin would get his 50th goal of the season on a power play. It was, after all, his league-leading 23rd power play goal. It would also figure that it would come on a one-timer, his signature shot. It might also figure that in scoring that goal, he dented the puck.
-- Nicklas Backstrom’s two goals represented his first two-goal game since scoring two against the Philadelphia Flyers (including the game-winner) in the Caps’ 7-0 win on November 1st.
-- The Caps started Tyson Strachan, Connor Carrick, and Julien Brouillette on defense. Among them they have 116 games of experience this season… with the Hershey Bears. They have a combined 53 games with the Caps. In Game 79 of the season for the Caps…not what one would have expected.
-- Tom Wilson had a quiet night. No penalties, no fights, no points, one shot on goal, one hit. But he did get 11:37 in ice time, his first time over ten minutes in four games and his third highest total this season.
-- It is not often that Nicklas Backstrom will record more shots on goal than Alex Ovechkin has shot attempts, but there it is. Backstrom had six shots on goal, Ovechkin had two shot on goal and two attempts blocked.
-- 27.6. Are we reading that right?... 27.6? Yup. The Caps were 16-for-58 in the faceoff circle, which is 27.6 percent. They were 4-for-17 in the offensive zone (23.5 percent), 5-for-23 in the neutral zone (21.7 percent). The Blues couldn’t do better against air.
-- John Carlson had a pair of assists, his first multi-point game since February 27th against Florida. He also had 26:35 in ice time. His performance came none too soon with Mike Green out of the lineup.
-- Mikhail Grabovski had the game-winning goal and has points in two of his last three games. However, he did not skate in the last six minutes of the contest and had only 12 minutes and change for the night. Hopefully, it was just giving him a breather after the Caps took a three-goal lead, letting him continue easing back into game shape after missing about two months to injury.
-- Evgeny Kuznetsov apparently does few things on a hockey rink without flair. In the space of a few short seconds he hooked Kevin Shattenkirk, then tossed a stick to defenseman Karl Alzner, who snapped his as play continued. Both, unfortunately for Kuznetsov and the Caps, are against the rules. It looked good, though. Fortunately, Shattenkirk would go off for slashing Troy Brouwer 39 seconds later, and 1:04 after that Grabovski would have his goal at 4-on-4. No harm, no foul, kid.
-- The 4-on-4 goal was Washington’s eighth of the season, tied for fifth most in the league.
-- A round of applause for Braden Holtby who, despite some ghastly possession and shot numbers for his club, stopped 28 of 29 shots in a game he was not supposed to start, but did when his colleague did (or did not, depending on when you entered your Twitter feed) begging off this game.
-- As for those ghastly possession numbers… 27.4 percent Corsi-for, 28.6 percent Fenwick-for, and 38.7 percent shots-for at 5-on-5 for the evening.
In the end…
It wasn’t pretty. Well, it was pretty in places, but there were long stretches in which St. Louis never seemed to have to skate on the defensive side of the red line. But hey, they don’t keep score on the basis of skate ruts/60 in the defensive zone. The Caps won where it matters, lived to fight another day, and perhaps showed that if there is little hope left in the season, there is some pride in the way they play.