Buoyed by Braden Holtby’s 46-save performance, the Capitals took advantage of subpar goaltending and a tired opponent Sunday night to record their 12th win of the season and third victory in a row. Their 4-1 win against the St. Louis Blues put Washington one point ahead of the fledgling Penguins - good for first place in the Metropolitan Division. Alexander Ovechkin scored his 16th and 17th goals of the season, pulling him even with the Blues’ Alexander Steen for the league’s goal-scoring lead. Mikhail Grabovski and John Carlson also scored, with Carlson notching his fifth goal in eight games after starting the season with a 13-game goal-scoring draught.
The game should have been a good measuring stick match for the Caps, who have not had a particularly tough schedule as members of the Metropolitan Division, but the Blues, playing the second of back-to-back games after beating the Hurricanes Saturday night in St. Louis, were not in top form, and starting goalie Jaroslav Halak’s atrocious first period, which promptly resulted with Brian Elliott starting the second period, likely buried them before they had a chance to find their legs.
Nonetheless, the Capitals executed their game plan of jumping on the fatigued away team early. They didn’t let up or get distracted after mounting a large first-period lead.
“We’re really happy about this one,” Caps center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We know they’re a great team. Obviously they played last night and they had a long flight, but we were aware of that and we wanted to come out hard and we were a little lucky, we scored on our chances in the beginning, and then I think we just followed our game plan from there.”
Backstrom also noted Washington’s improved even-strength play, which has struggled this season.
“I think we created more chances five-on-five in this game than in the whole year, so that’s positive,” he said.
The chemistry between Backstrom and his superstar right wing must go beyond the ice, because Ovechkin also addressed the even-strength issue in a jovial way in his post-game comments.
“Before this game, I think I was minus-8 (at even-strength), so now I’m minus six,” he said, laughing along with reporters. “I have to go to plus.”
The Capitals are also pleased with their defense lately, which is no easy feat considering the absence of Mike Green and relative inexperience of some of their defensive corps.
While the Caps were outshot by a large margin – 47-20 in the game and 18-3 in the second period alone – that stat is largely misleading and has more to do with playing with a large, early lead than giving up too many quality chances.
Next up for Washington are the rival Penguins, whom they face at home on Wednesday night at 8 p.m.
Nicklas Backstrom caught Ovechkin with a blue line to blue line pass about seven minutes into the first period. Ovi broke into the Blues zone alone and fired a slapshot from the right circle past Halak to put the Caps up by one at 7:17 of the first period. Ovechkin chipped Karl Alzner’s rebound over Halak’s glove hand to put the Caps up by two at 12:34. Mikhail Grabovski scored a nearly identical goal when he rushed to the net and knocked in Jason Chimera’s rebound for his seventh goal of the season at 15:41 of the first.
After the Blues drew a penalty with an extended shift in the Capitals zone, Vladimir Sobotka was able to capitalize on St. Louis’ second power play of the night, sending a wrist shot from the high slot over Holtby’s blocker at 5:49 of the second period.
The Blues momentum was short-lived, though, as John Carlson scored his fifth goal of the season on Washington’s first power play of the night to put the Capitals up 4-1 just four minutes later.
Head Coach Adam Oates confirmed that defenseman Mike Green was put on IR to open up a roster spot on the team. Green can be available to play as soon as Wednesday.
With Ray Shero and Peter Laviolette, Team USA’s associate general manager and assistant coach, respectively, watching the game from the Verizon Center’s press box, John Carlson picked a good night to bring his A-game. While Carlson won’t know until early next year if he is picked for Sochi, he already has Oates’ endorsement.
“If you watch, well, all year, but really the last 10 games, I don’t think there’d be any question (as to why he’s getting serious consideration),” Oates said.
The game’s three stars were 1) Braden Holtby, 2) Nicklas Backstrom and 3) Alexander Ovechkin