It was an historic night in Washington as the Capitals downed the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-1, to give goalie Braden Holtby his 200th NHL win. The win allowed the Caps to climb over the New York Rangers, New York Islanders (pending their game with the Dallas Stars), and Philadelphia Flyers to occupy the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
The teams seemed satisfied to play a punch-counterpunch game in the first half of the first period. There was not a lot of concerted action in front of either net. That ended when Evgeni Malkin took a tripping penalty 13 minutes into the period. On the ensuing power play, Alex Ovechkin worked the puck down the left wing wall and then sent the puck through the Penguin defense to Evgeny Kuznetsov on the other side. Kuznetsov fed the puck to John Carlson walking in from the top of the offensive zone. Carlson’s one-timer off the Kuznetsov feed clipped the stick of defender Tom Kuhnhackl on the way through and changed direction enough to beat goalie Matt Murray at the 14:09 mark.
Action ramped up a bit in the second period, and the Penguins took advantage of the faster pace when Phil Kessel tried to center the puck for Malkin darting down the slot. Before the puck got to Malkin, Dmitry Orlov got his stick on the puck but managed only to redirect the puck behind Holtby to tie the game, 1-1, 8:26 into the period.
Almost ten minutes later, with the clock winding down on the period, the Caps grabbed the lead back. On another power play, Lars Eller curled out of the right wing corner and fed the puck to Carlson at the right point. He stepped up and wristed the puck toward the net, and T.J. Oshie laid out the blade of his stick to redirect the puck up and over Murray’s left shoulder to give the Caps a 2-1 lead going into the second intermission.
The Caps did a fine job of nursing the one-goal lead through the first half of the final frame, and they were rewarded, thanks to an unlikely source. Alex Chiasson started the play be digging the puck out of the right wing corner and feeding it to Taylor Chorney at the right point. Chorney shot the puck in deep, where it was taken up by Nicklas Backstrom. Facing the end wall, he backhanded a no-look pass in front where Chandler Stephenson was lurking. Stephenson snapped a shot that beat Murray on his blocker side, and it was 3-1, 13:42 into the third period. Jakub Vrana added an empty net goal with 2:42 left for the final margin, and Capitals fans could head out into the cold night a little warmer for the win.
-- Braden Holtby secured his 200the win in his 319th NHL game, second-fastest to 200 wins in NHL history. Ken Dryden did it for the Montreal Canadiens in 311 games.
-- The Caps had two power play goals, doubling their output on home ice. They had two in 25 chances (8.0 percent) in their first six home contests.
-- The Caps’ penalty kill has been feast or famine on home ice. Coming into this game they allowed multiple power play goals in three home games, shut out opponents in three others. Tonight made it four shutouts as they kept the Penguins off the board on four tries.
-- The Caps spread their 31 shots around. Fifteen skaters recorded shots on goal, 12 of them recording at least two. No Capital had more than three shots on goal.
-- Jay Beagle dominated the faceoff circle, winning 13 of 17 draws (76.5 percent) and taking five of six against Sidney Crosby, all in the defensive zone.
-- Liam O’Brien had one of those odd games with more penalty minutes (five for fighting Ryan Reaves) than time on ice (4:36). He had just two shifts in the second half of the game, the second of them closing out the contest.
-- When Taylor Chorney recorded an assist on the Chandler Stephenson goal, one might have felt a little better about things, and not just because it gave the Caps a two-goal lead. He has points in three games this season, all Caps wins.
-- What a game for John Carlson. In 28:43 of ice time (he would have gone over 30 minutes but had “only” 7:33 in the last period), he had a goal and an assist, was plus-1, had two shots on goal, five shot attempts, two hits, and three takeaways.
-- Nicklas Backstrom had an assist to snap a seven-game without a point. Next on the to-do list will be breaking a ten-game streak without a goal.
-- T. J. Oshie broke an eight-game streak without a goal with what was the game-winning goal.
In the end…
Braden Holtby made history in this game, but it is part of a nice roll he is on. In his last five appearances he is 5-0-0, 1.98, .939. But for the unfortunate episode with Dmitry Orlov’s stick, this one might have been a shutout. At the other end, the Caps had fine balance, a matter that has been an issue with some frequency this season. This is the kind of team – the kind of game – that this year’s Capitals have to have, a team that gets contributions up and down the roster, solid special teams play at both ends, and solid goaltending. If they can put more of these kinds of games together, the Capitals will be right in the thick of things.