On Saturday night the Washington Capitals got their second (much-needed) regulation victory on the season, a comfortable-looking 4-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets - but the game was much closer than the score, with the two teams spending the entire first period locked a zero-zero. After grabbing a 1-0 lead early in the second, they were able to give themselves a little bit of breathing room and push that lead to two goals thanks to some tremendous individual efforts at both ends of the ice.
First, Braden Holtby used some of the aggressiveness we've come to expect from him while trying to thwart a Columbus two-on-one down low in the Caps' defensive zone.
This is the kind of play that could easily have ended up as the wrong kind of Moments that Mattered. But Holtby read the play well and made a quick decision to come out and challenge Cam Atkinson, ultimately preventing even a shot on goal from the quality scoring chance. Instead of a tie game, Holtby was able to keep the Caps ahead... which allowed Brooks Laich to cash in on a rebound following a great play from Steve Oleksy just under a minute later.
Here's the goal:
The play starts with Martin Erat curling away from defensive pressure by Jack Johnson. He sees the back-checking Blue Jackets' forwards coming right for him, so he softly drops the puck into open ice on the right-wing boards (and if there's an incredibly underrated aspect of this play, that's it). Oleksy skates into the space, picks up the loose puck, and then we'll let him describe what happened next:
"It was a great play by Marty just leaving it to area and I knew once I got it, [Atkinson] was going to expect me to shoot it right away," Oleksy said. "I kind of waited and let him make the first move. I was just trying to get around him and I knew we had good traffic in front so I just wanted to make sure I got it through to the net and Brooksie did a great job sliding it home."
Cam Atkinson can't love starring in both halves of this Moment that Mattered, but when you're matched up against the Capitals' leading scoring defenseman at even strength, you get what you get.
Atkinson shows some classic "ole" defense, but is powerless to stop Oleksy. When Oleksy can reach into his bag and pull out moves like that, it's no surprise he has been out-scoring Mike Green at even strength the last two seasons.
(Ok, yes, that's still shocking.)
The final piece was Laich's finish:
While Sergei Bobrovsky is able to stop the initial shot, he doesn't get any help from his defense on the follow-up chance. After pressuring Erat higher in the zone, Johnson drops down to cover the front of the net but doesn't maintain solid positioning and lets his momentum carry him away from the danger zone (i.e. right on top of the crease where Laich eventually scored) and down towards the goal line on the far post (from the puck). That's, um, not textbook defensive positioning.
Compounding that issue, Jared Boll has the weak-side slot as his defensive responsibility, but literally doesn't take a single stride in the above clip. A desperation slash is all the defense he can mount, but it isn't enough to inhibit Laich's slam dunk rebound in the slightest. Even if the rebound didn't go to Laich, Erat and Troy Brouwer had both also beaten their checks and had prime positioning on top of the net for a loose puck. Bobrvosky essentially needed to save that puck and prevent a rebound.
The Caps haven't always gotten the big saves they've needed so far this season, but this sequence kicked off with Holtby making a huge play (even if he wasn't officially credited with a save) to maintain the lead, and his teammates were able to take the puck the other way, get some offensive involvement from the blue line, and celebrate a rebound garbage goal - an ugly thing of beauty, as it were. This is exactly what Caps and their fans had hoped and expected to see this season (and, let's add "Martin Erat factoring in on a second line goal" to that list...).
Key saves? Offense from the defense? Secondary scoring by crashing the net? That's a recipe for success.