New Jersey came into the afternoon having just snapped a three-game losing streak with an OT win over the Sabres on Thursday. After their fortnight-long COVID pause to start the month of February, the Devils were 3-3-0 including a loss to Washington last Sunday.
Washington entered today’s contest tied with Boston atop the Eastern Division, and are 4-5-1 in their last ten matches.
Here’s Saturday afternoon’s Plus/Minus:
Minus: A strong start led to a squeamish second and third periods before Washington was able to salt the game away. Washington also got went goalless in two powerplay chances and was narrowly out-paced at the faceoff dot once again (51-49%.)
Plus: The Caps played a physical game, nearly doubling-up the Devils in hits (15-8) while also blocking more shots (13-11) and forcing more takeaways (9-6) than their matinee hosts.
And now, this...
1. Despite their noted distaste for mid-afternoon puck drops, Washington looked anything but lethargic to start the contest. Just 3:36 into the contest Justin Schultz found Garnett Hathaway on the doorstep and he deposited the puck over MacKenzie Blackwood’s stick side to give the Capitals a 1-0 early lead. The play started with a strong defensive effort by Dmitry Orlov along the defensive blue line to spring the forwards for the opening marker of the game. Hathaway’s third goal of the season was his first of the month, his last tally coming on January 28th against the Islanders. In addition, he became the 15th different Capital in 20 games to record the first goal of the game.
2. Just moments later at 14:52, Brenden Dillon kept the pressure on with some hard work along the offensive blue-line, he ratcheted a hard slapper from the top of the zone and a deflection off P.K. Suban that tipped off the stick of Daniel Sprong. The second goal of the contest came just 1:32 after the first. It was Sprong’s first tally since the first of February and his third of the season.
Dillon and John Carlson were credited with the assists, and the helper made it four straight games with a point for Carlson.
3. Lars Eller kept the offense humming, and off a jailbreak rush and a give-and-go from Conor Sheary, the Great Dane snuck the Caps’ third of the game off the post and in. Sheary started the play on the defensive end with a steal of the puck off of Will Butcher’s stick before Eller deposited it into the net over the goalie’s catching glove side. With the tally, Eller’s 4th of the season, he improved to eight points in his last nine games.
The sticks...they are hot! pic.twitter.com/uDWunp8ntt— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) February 27, 2021
4. While Washington’s play dominated most of the first, Nico Hischier got the Devils on the board just seven seconds into a powerplay with under two minutes to go, bringing the home team back to within two, and making it a 3-1 contest. With the goal, the Caps have now surrendered a PPG in 6 of their last 8 games. Washington ended the first period with a 14-8 shot advantage and hoped that their luck would continue: they are 4- 2- 3 this season when leading after one period.
5. In the second, Washington killed off an early penalty to start the period courtesy of a holding call on Ovechkin, but at 13:51 Vanaceck lost his stick and was stuck in his own net before Pavel Zacha took advantage of the unsettled situation and slotted it past Vitek Vanecek on a wrist shot from between the circles to make it a one-goal game. The marker extended Zacha’s point streak to nine consecutive games (4G, 7A) and represented all of the scoring in the contest’s second frame.
6. Despite some lackadaisical defensive play to start the third period, Washington managed to stave off the early onslaught from the Devils coming out of the break. This came at the expense of Washington’s offensive production, as they went over fifteen minutes of playtime without a shot, a stretch that extended back to over ten minutes left in the second period.
7. With all the momentum on the Devils side and Washington doing plenty of chasing, Jakub Vrana provided the spark in the third period. Using his quick skating and nifty stick-handling skills, Vrana sped between two defensemen down the center of the ice and beat Blackwood with 11:49 remaining in the third to bring the advantage back to two goals, 4-2. The goal was his sixth of the season, and 12th point overall on the campaign, tying him with Eller and Ovechkin for third-most on the team. Carlson’s assist on the Vrana tally was his second of the afternoon and brought him to within three points of his career 500th.
8. A Nic Dowd empty-net goal with under a minute remaining put the game on ice at 5-2, it was his third goal and fifth point of the season.
9. Evgeny Kuznetsov was a late game-day scratch, which forced TJ Oshie to once again fill in at center, where he served as the pivot of the third unit between Richard Panik and Daniel Sprong. Coming into today’s game Oshie had won 54 of 106 draws. On the afternoon he was just one-of-four from the dot for a 20% FO winning percentage.
10. Sprong got the start in Kuznetsov’s absence, the first time the Dutch winger earned a sweater since he skated 9:52 on 12 shifts against the Flyers on February 7th, seven games ago. On the afternoon he had the one goal in 10:07 over twelve shifts and provided some solid two-way play when he was on the ice.
Vitek Vanecek continued to shine in the starters role stopping 23 of 24 Devils’ shots. He is now 8-4-3 in 16 starts with a 2.86 GAA and a strong .909 save percentage on the year.
While we should expect to see Ilya Samsonov back in the net in some capacity soon, Vanecek has cemented himself as one of the most valuable players on this team through the first 20 games of the shortened 56-game season.
The victory made it two-in-a-row for Washington and returned them atop the hyper-competitive East Division with 26 points. Despite a sleepy second and start to the third period, Washington was able to hold onto the early lead they built in the first and locked things down defensively down the stretch. It was a welcome start to the Caps’ five-game road stand as these two teams will meet again tomorrow afternoon at 3 pm in the same barn, as Washington looks to maintain and extend their division lead.