Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals played the first of a five game road trip that will see them touring western Canada before heading into a Metro Division showdown in Philadelphia. Despite an ugly, ragged, defense-optional contest, the Caps came away from Winnipeg with two points as Martin Erat clinched a shootout victory over the Jets for a 5-4 final.
The win raises the Caps record to 4-5-0, tied with Columbus for fourth in the division with eight points and remarkably just six points behind division leader Pittsburgh.
The best way to describe the first period was scrambly. The Capitals allowed several breakaways and odd-man rushes and escaped the first frame tied due largely to Braden Holtby standing on his head much of the 20 minutes. Both Mike Green and John Carlson were beaten on solo drives to their outside shoulders with only Holtby to bail them out.
The second period saw the teams finally light the lamps, and is quite rapid succession. If you’re a fan of “firewagon hockey,” you had no better example than the second frame. The Caps broke out on top, thanks to a tremendous offensive zone possession by the nominal third line of Mikhail Grabovski between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward.
Ward won a battle for the puck an directed it to John Erskine, reinserted in the lineup after missing three games with an upper body injury. Erskine’s blast from the point bounced around the crease and finally settled for Grabovski, who backhanded past a confused Ondrej Pavelec for his first goal since opening night, and just the Caps’ second even-strength road goal of the season.
Four minutes later, Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little took advantage of Mike Green’s carelessness with the puck in the neutral zone on a power play and broke in two-on-one. Ladd’s shot bounced of Holtby right to Little, who buried the puck in the yawning net to tie the score at one.
Less than a minute later, the Jets made it 2-1. Winnipeg was able to cycle the puck and finally found open space with the defensemen. Zach Bogosian made a cross-rink pass to his defensive partner Grant Clitsome, and his left-handed shot from the right point sailed past Holtby, clanged off a post and came to rest in the Caps net.
It was at that point that Alex Ovechkin decided to take over — for a little while, anyway.
The Caps won a battle along the boards in their end and the puck squirted out to Marcus Johansson. The much-maligned left winger found a streaking Ovechkin in the middle of the ice and The Great Eight simply outraced Dustin Byfuglien into the Jets zone, deked Pavelec — who lost his stick — and beat the fallen goalie with a nifty backhand to tie it back up at two.
Johansson then won an offensive-zone faceoff to Ovechkin, who sent a rocket of a wrist shot around traffic and past the unexpecting Pavelec moments later for a 3-2 lead. Ovechkin had a solid game all around, accounting for seven shots on goal and another five that missed their target, along with three hits.
Blake Wheeler evened things up again before the second intermission. Mark Scheifele corralled a poor clearing attempt in the middle of the ice and passed to Evander Kane, who threw a puck toward the net that Wheeler tipped over the shoulder of a committed Holtby.
The teams traded goals in the third period.
This time, the Caps were able to take advantage of a poor clearing attempt by the Jets while trying to kill a penalty. Ovechkin did a great job holding the left point and the puck eventually was chipped back to Troy Brouwer, who went to the other side of the ice for Nick Backstrom, who was all alone. Backstrom skated in and used a deft toe-drag around Toby Enstrom to feed Brouwer cruising through the slot. Brouwer actually had time to settle the puck, then snap a shot past Pavelec for a short-lived 4-3 lead.
For again, the Caps were careless clearing their own zone. This time, Backstrom couldn’t get the puck up the boards and Kane simply corralled the puck and slid it to a wide-open Wheeler in the slot, who beat Holtby clean for his second goal of the night.
Overtime was scoreless, so the game headed to a shootout.
After two rounds, no one had scored, with Grabovski and Ovechkin being shut down by Pavelec. Andrew Ladd beat Hotlby, forcing the Caps to score to stay in it, and Backstrom used a little delay move to snap a forehand shot over Pavelec’s blocker to force extras. The Caps matched Winnipeg’s tallies for the next two skaters, as Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer both beating Pavelec to continue to extend matters.
On the sixth shot, Kane was denied and Martin Erat skated to almost the top of the crease and beat Pavelec with a snap shot off the forehand five-hole to seal the win and steal an extra point to start the longest road trip of the season for the Caps.
The bottom line of this game is that the Caps walk away with two points. In the longer term, they have to get the defense fixed. Green didn’t play after 9:25 of the third period, including overtime. Adam Oates admitted following the game that Green was benched in favor of other defenders.
“I didn’t think Greenie was having his best night,” Coach Adam Oates said. “The other guys were going pretty good, it got late in the game and I think Calle [Johansson] just went with Carly [John Carlson] and Steve-O [Oleksy] for a couple shifts.”