If the Washington Capitals came into Thursday night’s game full on streaking then the Ottawa Senators came into it half-dressed, having won three straight themselves. The contest was a pivotal one for both teams in terms of playoff positioning as they continued their drive towards a postseason berth while trying to fend off the competition. It was also an obvious clash of styles between the high flying Caps and the defensively focused Sens and many wondered which team would be able to assert their game upon the other. When the horn sounded after 60 minutes at Scotia Bank Place the answer was clear. The Sens had “covered” the streaking Caps with a 3-1 win, doubling them in shots on goal and allowing Alex Ovechkin and company very few good opportunities.
Entering the game on Thursday the Capitals were the hottest team in the National Hockey League, earning points in 14 of their last 16 and having won eight straight games to start the month of April. It’s no coincidence that the Caps winning ways have coincided with two of the games’ great talents, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, finding their scoring touch again. The dynamic duo, whose games seemed to have fallen from the level of elite NHL superstars to mere stars these last couple seasons, have been amongst the best in the league again since Mid-March. Going into Ottawa Thursday night Ovechkin had amassed 18 goals and 26 points during the Capitals’ great 16 game run, while Backstrom had tallied 22 points of his own. Add to that, the stellar play of second year goaltender Braden Holtby, and it’s easy to see why the Capitals have rocketed up the standings as of late, and presented a major test for the Sens.
The Sens for their part, rolled into the game with confidence as well. Winners of three consecutive games, they had begun to right the ship after a previous five game pointless skid, and a win over the Caps would go a long way to showing everyone they were back on their game. The Sens have been getting it done all season with a strong defensive game and great goaltending, and this game was no different. Entering Thursday, the Sens ranked 2nd in the NHL defensively, allowing a mere 2.08 goals per game and considering they ranked 25th offensively, scoring 2.4 goals per game, it’s obvious that their commitment to playing defensive hockey has been the biggest reason they sit in a playoff spot at this point in the season.
Head coach Paul MacLean has done a great job making that happen, by sticking to his system and getting the best out of this group, even with so many new faces on the current roster. MacLean has kept the Sens a puck possession team despite missing their two most talented players, and ironically, allowed them to play a “best defence is a good offence” type of game. The young Sens use an aggressive forecheck and throw everything possible at the net, and although it has not resulted in a ton of goals, it has generated much of their offense and kept things simple for the young group. It has also allowed the Sens to be the number two ranked team in the NHL in terms of shots on goal per game and as every coach will tell you it’s hard for the opposition to score when you make them defend.
That style of play was on full display for Ottawa against Washington on Thursday night and it worked to perfection for the Sens. They came out of the gate flying and took control of the game from the start, outshooting the Caps 11-4 in the first period and although they were unable to beat Braden Holtby in the opening stanza they had set the tone for the evening. After a continued push, they broke through early in the second when Kyle Turris snapped one home and when the Capitals tied it mid-way through the second, the Sens wasted little time regaining the lead. They took advantage of a mistake by Holtby on an errant pass 2:12 later and Cory Conacher put the Sens up to stay. Turris added an empty-netter in the third for good measure, his second of the night, en route to a fourth straight victory for the team. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the game, from the Sens perspective, was how they closed it out, giving Washington little chance to come back by outshooting them 16-8 in the second and again 11-7 in the third. Craig Anderson, who appears to be regaining his All-Star form once again having played a few games since returning from an ankle injury, was not tested much but was strong when called upon. Head Coach Paul MacLean was happy with his team’s performance saying “We’re always pleased to get the two points, but I think this was the most complete game we’ve played in quite a while.”
The Senators sent a clear message to the rest of the Eastern Conference on Thursday night in Ottawa. They are a legitimate team that appears bound for the postseason and are starting to roll at exactly the right time. With Craig Anderson rounding into form, Jared Cowen in the line-up and now news that Erik Karlsson has been cleared to practice with the team, Ottawa appears to be very formidable. This young group has gained a ton of experience this season and is a team playing its best hockey down the stretch. Their style is tailor made for the postseason and you can be they are an opponent that nobody wants to draw in the opening round of the playoffs. With only five games remaining in the season and the team on the rise, Sens fans are gearing up for bonus hockey in the Nation’s Capital.