If the Caps played out a dark fantasy of life without Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on Tuesday in their 5-0 shutout loss to the San Jose Sharks, they displayed what makes them bona fide contenders for a championship this season in their 4-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night.
The Caps were skilled, balanced, focused, and steady. It started early, even before T.J. Oshie opened the scoring mid-way through the first period. The Caps outshot the Blackhawks, 6-0, before Oshie lit the lamp for his first goal as a Capital at the 8:48 mark. With Viktor Tikhonov in the penalty box for an interference call, the Caps needed just 17 seconds to covert the power play opportunity. Playing the “axle” spot in the Caps’ 1-3-1 formation, Oshie one-timed an Evgeny Kuznetsov pass from the right wing wall past goalie Scott Darling, and the Caps were off and running.
Chicago picked up the offensive pace in the second period, but it was John Carlson who would score the period’s first and only goal. Taking a Stan Galiev pass at the blue line with his back to the net, Carlson spun and fired a long-range shot that beat Darling on the long side past his blocker.
Matt Niskanen gave the Caps a 3-0 lead early in the third period when he took advantage of the Blackhawks paying too close attention to Marcus Johansson circling out from behind the Chicago net. Niskanen filled in the high slot, Johansson found him, and Niskanen buried the shot to give the Caps a three-goal lead.
Chicago got that one back barely a minute after the Caps’ goal celebration ended, courtesy of Viktor Svedberg, but that would be as close as the visitors would get. Alex Ovechkin rounded out the scoring when he snapped a shot from a near-impossible angle at the Chicago goal line off a Kuznetsov feed to make it a happy night for Caps fans.
-- As prolific a goal scorer as Alex Ovechkin is, this is the first time he recorded goals in the first two games he played since 2012-2013. He finished that abbreviated season with 32 goals in 48 games (a 55-goal pace).
-- Oshie scores, Ovechkin scores, two goals from defensemen. But don’t forget the two primary assists from Evgeny Kuznetsov, who looked at home in that spot in the middle of the top line.
-- Marcus Johansson is quietly putting together a nice start to the season. A game-winning goal in the opener and two assists in this game.
-- Unlike Tuesday night, the Caps jumped on Chicago early. At 5-on-5 they had 20 shot attempts in the first period to nine for the Blackhawks.
-- With the Caps holding the most dangerous lead in hockey – a two-goal lead – they held the Blackhawks without a shot on goal for 7:34 late in the third period, adding Ovechkin’s goal during that span to seal the outcome.
-- Tom Wilson continues to impress in the early going as a more rounded player. He did not record a point in this game, but in 16:35 in ice time he had three shots on goal, three hits, two blocked shots, and no fights.
-- Chandler Stephenson dressed for his first NHL game. While his baptism was short (nine shifts – fewest on the team – and 8:43 in ice time), he won five of six faceoffs.
-- John Carlson is certainly getting the chance to expand his role with the departure of Mike Green. He skated more than 25 minutes for the second straight game. It was the first time he did that since Games 71 and 72 last season.
-- Braden Holtby played perhaps his most solid game of the young season. He was not severely tested over long stretches, but he made the stops he had to make when he needed to make them. The goal he allowed might have been a bit of bad luck as Viktor Svedberg’s initial shot was blocked by T.J. Oshie, but the puck dribbled past Oshie’s leg, allowing Svedberg to step around and get another whack at it.
-- The game within a game…no two players faced off more against one another in this game than Jay Beagle against Jonathan Toews. Both are accomplished performers in the circle. They took 12 draws against one another, splitting them right down the middle at six apiece.
In the end…
Sure, the Blackhawks played the night before (and it showed in the third period), and they put their backup goalie out there. Still, the Caps shut the big guns down. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews had but one shot on goal apiece. If Viktor Svedberg is getting almost a fifth of the shot attempts (10 of 55), it is probably good defense being applied in other places.
What is perhaps the best takeaway from this game is the business-like effort. The Caps went out to play a solid game in all three zones and did precisely that. This, Caps fans, is what “sticking to the script” is going to look like. Don’t get too “down” over a loss like Tuesday night’s shutout. Go out and do your job the next night. They did their job well in this one.