The Caps clinched the league’s best record for the 2015-2016 season with a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Verizon Center.
For the Caps, the game was reminiscent of so many games played early in the season when they would slowly and methodically wear teams down, then dominate the third period to put games away. If the most reliable predictor of a Caps win this season was first goal scored, things looked good for the hone team in the first period. Late in the period the Caps showed fans why it is always a good thing to get pucks to the net. At the top of the offensive zone, Nate Schmidt double-clutched as if he was going to take a slap shot, pulling Nick Foligno to the middle of the ice in defense and opening a passing lane to John Carlson for a one-timer from the left point. Carlson’s drive made it all the way to goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who kicked the shot out to his left. Unfortunately for him, that happened to be where Justin Williams was camped out. Williams had time to draw the puck over to his forehand and whip it into the net before Ryan Murray could dive across in an attempt to poke the puck away. With just 3:30 left in the period, it was 1-0, Caps.
That would have been a good way to go into the first intermission, but before Wes Johnson could finish announcing the goal to the crowd, Columbus struck back on a turnover by Dmitry Orlov. After Brooks Orpik sent the puck around the end wall to the Olympia corner, Orlov collected it and had a decision to make. He could have turned, pulled the puck to his forehand, and then sent it up the wall and out of the zone. He could have sent the puck back around the boards to Orpik. Or, he could have tried to backhand the puck up the middle and out of danger. He chose the last of these, and as the knight said in the movie…
The puck was batted down by Rene Bourque, giving Cam Atkinson a chance to gain control and snap a shot past goalie Braden Holtby’s glove to tie the game just 1:36 after the Williams goal.
That would be all the scoring until the third period. And as Caps fans have come to know this season, the Caps own the third period. They certainly did on this night, taking the lead for good just 3:46 into the frame. Daniel Winnik led a three-man rush against the Columbus defense, sliding the puck over to Tom Wilson on the right side as he gained the offensive zone. The puck was poked away from Wilson by Dean Kukan, allowing Winnik to recover the puck and send it to the Columbus net on which Mike Richards was closing. Richards did not get a stick on the shot coming through, but it might have forced Bobrovsky into leaving another juicy rebound, this one cleaned up by Wilson cutting across the slot and backhanded into the open net.
The Caps got insurance late in the period on a power play. Nicklas Backstrom started the play by working the puck off the right wing wall and deftly pulling it around Cam Atkinson to find Matt Niskanen at the top of the offensive zone. Niskanen has time and space to get a shot off and as the puck sailed through, T.J. Oshie got enough of his stick on it to redirect it past Bobrovsky’s left pad to make it 3-1 at the 14:26 mark.
The Caps closed the scoring with 2:25 left when Backstrom took a Niskanen pass in the neutral zone, took one step up to gain the red line, then snapped a shot that banked off the crossbar and in for the final 4-1 margin.
-- The Caps, in addition to winning their second Presidents Trophy in franchise history, hit the 54-win mark for the second time in franchise history, tying the club record for wins.
-- Braden Holtby became the fifth NHL goalie to win 46 or more games in a single regular season. More important, he looks more and more like the goalie who threatened to lap the field on his way to the Vezina Trophy. With 21 saves on 22 shots in this game, Holtby is 5-1-1, 1.88, .927, with one shutout in his last seven appearances.
-- Did you have Matt Niskanen leading the team in shots on goal? OK, did you have Jason Chimera? If you had either one, you were a winner. Both had five shots on goal. Niskanen led the club with nine shot attempts.
-- Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and an assist, his 17th multi-point game of the season, tied for 11th most in the league.
-- This was the Caps’ 29th win at home this season, tying this club for second all-time in home wins in franchise history (2008-2009). Their next home win will tie the 1985-1986 and 2009-2010 teams for the top spot in franchise history with 30 wins.
-- The penalty killers had a fine night. They allowed the Blue Jackets no goals and just one shot in 4:51 of shorthanded ice time. They are 16-for-17 over their last five games (94.1 percent).
-- Matt Niskanen had a pair of assists for his first multi-point game since January 19th, also against the Blue Jackets.
-- Nicklas Backstrom’s goal was his 20th of the season, making him the fifth Capital to reach that mark this season. The five 20-goal scorers are the most for the Caps in one season since they had seven in the 2009-2010 season.
-- The big lead in the standings allowed the Caps to spread out the ice time. No forward logged as many as 18 minutes (T.J. Oshie had 17:56). Three defensemen topped 20 minutes (Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson), and that might have been just two had Barry Trotz not held Dmitry Orlov to just three second period shifts totaling less than three minutes after his first-period gaffe that led to the Columbus goal.
-- The shot attempts at 5-on-5 by period illustrated how the Caps wore the Blue Jackets down. The teams split 36 shot attempts down the middle in the first period, 18 apiece. In the second period it was the Caps with a slight edge, 12-11. In the third period, though, the Caps dominated by a 20-11 margin (numbers from war-on-ice.com).
In the end…
This game was not really as close as the final score indicated. The Caps could have ended the issue early but for some fine stops by Sergei Bobrovsky, particularly on Jay Beagle. And, but for a mistake in judgment by Dmitry Orlov on where to put the puck to get it out of harm’s way, it might have been Braden Holtby’s second shutout in a row. As it was, it was a solid, businesslike effort, one that looked like the Caps were focused on tending to business with a minimum of fancy plays. Two goals off rebounds and another on a deflection are the sorts of greasy goals they will need when the games matter more. It was a welcome look.