Four Corners of the Rink: Capitals vs. Blackhawks Review

It wasn’t perfect, but given the effort turned in by the Washington Capitals in their previous game against San Jose, a lackluster 5-0 loss, Thursday’s 4-1 Verizon Center victory against the Chicago Blackhawks was a huge step in the right direction. If you throw out the second period, most of which the Hawks controlled after falling behind 2-0, Washington turned in by far it’s best first period of the year and then closed out the defending champs in the third when they showed signs of life.

The Caps came out of the gates with the energy that had been lacking in their first two games, moving their feet in all three zones and throwing their bodies around. Tom Wilson’s big hit on Jonathan Toews drew a retaliation penalty from Viktor Tikhonov, which led to T.J.Oshie’s first goal as a Cap about nine minutes in, and Washington’s forecheck and neutral-zone presence limited Chicago to just one shot on goal in the contest’s first 14 minutes. Overall the Caps owned a 21-9 shot-attempt advantage in the first frame.

Predictably, as most quality teams do, the Hawks bounced back in the second period to take the play to the Caps, who shifted into neutral after taking a 2-0 lead on John Carlson’s spin-o-rama slapper three minutes into the period. Chicago outshot Washington 17-7 in the second, but thanks mainly to the goaltending of Braden Holtby was unable to dent the twine despite numerous careless Caps’ turnovers and several odd-man rushes – and in spite of a 28-15 advantage in shot attempts.

Presumably following a friendly discussion with head coach Barry Trotz during the second intermission, Washington assumed control again in the third, taking a 3-0 lead on a high-slot snipe by Matt Niskanen at 2:32. When Chicago answered immediately (letdowns after goals still are an issue for the Caps, apparently) with a goal by Viktor Svedberg 41 seconds later, Washington went into shutdown mode. The Caps allowed Chicago just three shots on goal the rest of the night and closed the Blackhawks out when Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov teamed up on a pretty, 2-on-1 tic-tac-toe goal with 5:42 remaining.

Holtby finished the game with 26 saves to earn the first star, with Carlson (1G, 1A) and Kuznetsov (2A) getting the second and third stars, respectively. Oshie (1G, 1A) and Marcus Johansson (2A), who played one of his best all-around games since he’s been with the Caps, were the other multiple-point scorers.


The Fans-Eye View

Although it was a another typical late-arriving and subdued Verizon Center mid-week, early-season crowd, the energy picked up in tune with the team’s effort, and any time you beat the defending champs it’s a great night at the rink.


The fans’ report card:

Final Result: A

Despite a less-than-stellar second period, the Caps played with energy and were physical, taking the play to Chicago much of the evening. This was a big bounce-back win for Washington and showed that the Barry Trotz influence is still strong in the room.

Atmosphere: B

Maybe the fans were expecting the worst, but it took a few minutes for them to warm up to what clearly was a better effort by their team. Oshie’s first goal in a Washington sweater about nine minutes in helped turn the volume up and from there the atmosphere remained pretty upbeat.


Pace of the Game: A-

Washington’s pace early was way beyond what it had been the first two games, and the Blackhawks were flying in the second period. The game featured a good combination of speed, skill plays and physicality.


Home Team Effort and Energy: B+

The first and third periods get A’s, but the second was a C. We are still waiting for the team to turn in a full 60-minute effort.


Offense: A

Four goals should win every time when you have Holtby between the pipes.


Action: A

There was plenty of goal-scoring by the home team, and Tom Wilson was in typical get-under-your-skin form, laying the body on anyone and everyone. Overall the Caps played a more heavy game, and Ovechkin’s third-period 2-on-1 goal from Kuznetsov was a SportsCenter special.


Overall Fan Grade: A

You can’t complain with a bounce-back win against the defending champs capped off by an Ovechkin-from-Kuznetsov beauty.


Coach’s Corner

Barry Trotz was pleased with how the Caps responded to a bad outing. (Icon SMI)
Barry Trotz was pleased with how the Caps responded to a bad outing. (Icon SMI)

Just from his demeanor you could tell that Barry Trotz was much more pleased with his team’s effort for obvious reasons. Still, in true Trotz form, he was sure to point out there’s always room for improvement.

“I thought it was a really good response to an absolutely terrible game against the Sharks,” Trotz said. “The guys can tell you it’s a lot more fun when you put in the full effort and commitment. It just feels better.”

Trotz made a few moves prior to the game – maybe because of performance, maybe to send a message or perhaps for both reasons. Chandler Stephenson, a 21-year-old center who has been to four Caps training camps, was recalled and placed in the lineup instead of Michael Latta as the fourth-line center, and Nate Schmidt was scratched from the third defensive pairing to allow off-season acquisition Taylor Chorney to make his Washington debut.

Stephenson was steady in 8:43 of ice time and won an impressive five out of six faceoffs. Chorney only saw about 12 minutes of ice, but was a physical presence with two hits and didn’t make any notable errors. You can argue that Latta hasn’t been the worst player on the team’s fourth line to this point and that perhaps Dmitry Orlov was more deserving of a benching than Schmidt, but you can’t argue that something had to be done to shake up the lineup.

It’s really hard to sit Brooks Laich and his $4.5 million salary, and if you’re going to bench young forward Stanislav Galiev you might as well just send him back to Hershey. On the blue line with Orlov coming back from a long injury-related absence, you know that you are going to have to live with uneven play until he gets more comfortable. He needs all the ice time he can get at this point, so if you look at the big picture, Trotz’ moves made perfect sense. And the results were good.

“I thought Taylor was real steady, which is what you want from the third pair,” Trotz said. “He made allthe right plays. There wasn’t any time where I said under my breath, ‘What are you doing?’ That’s probably a good sign for that pair.”

As for his thoughts on Stephenson, a player he had singled out for having a great training camp, Trotz said: “Chandler was really good. I think he was 5-1 {on faceoffs}. He showed good patience. Positionally he’s really good, and that’s a strength. You look and see Jonathan Toews and Kane, the Stanley Cup champions, for your first game and sometimes that can be a little overwhelming, but he didn’t seem overwhelmed at all.”

Trotz will have other big decisions to make tonight as it has been announced that world-class center Nicklas Backstrom will be back in the lineup after missing the first three games to allow his surgically repaired hip to fully heal. Backstrom has centered the Caps’ top line and played with Ovechkin probably for 98 percent of his tenure in D.C., but the top group of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Oshie showed good chemistry in preseason and really played well together against Chicago.

““I think that they’re just learning each other,” Trotz said. “I thought Kuzy was much better. He had a lot more push in his game, a lot more battle today, which makes the whole line go. They were all going pretty well tonight. There was some urgency and desperation.”

Added Oshie: “I think a big part of that is I sort of settled down and started getting a little bit more comfortable and just playing hockey – and those guys have been playing great. Kuzy has been setting both of us up quite a bit and Ovie actually has set me up in the slot quite a few times, so it was nice for the puck to find the back of the net.”

Marcus Johansson
Marcus Johansson turned in one of the best all-around games of his tenure in D.C. (Tom Turk/THW)

While it seems like a no-brainer to insert Backstrom into the first-line center slot, it also could be argued that spreading the wealth and letting him get back to game speed by playing on the second line might not be a bad idea given the first line’s performance Thursday. Backstrom playing on the second line also could take some of the pressure off of second-year forward Andre Burakovsky, who has struggled a bit after being shifted to center there. Burakovsky could move back to wing, where he played last year, or drop to center the third line.

Backstrom has been separated from Ovechkin for short periods in the past, but always manages to end up back with the Russian superstar.



Jo Jo Can Go Go

Another player who might be impacted by Backstrom’s return to the lineup is Marcus Johansson, who turned in one of his best games as Capital vs. Chicago. Johansson played fast and wasn’t afraid to go to the tough areas. He screened goaltender Scott Darling on goals by Carlson and Oshie and showed great poise, patience and skill in setting up Niskanen for the Caps’ third tally. Johansson also used his speed to create a couple of Grade A scoring opportunities for himself.

“We want to put pucks in play a lot more often, and I think Marcus did that,” Trotz said. “I think he skated really well tonight. He was first on pucks and winning battles. He was skating, taking shots, making plays. I thought he was real solid tonight.”

On Niskanen’s goal Johansson took the puck behind the net and circled around. Three Blackhawks chased him, so knowing that he had a numbers advantage on the rest of the ice, he carried the puck and waited patiently. Burakovsky made a smart play on the weak side, heading to the net to draw the player covering Niskanen down below the faceoff dots and opening up the passing lane for Johansson, who put the puck right on the D-man’s tape to set up the goal.

So heading into tonight’s game with Backstrom back in the lineup, Trotz has some tough decisions. Does he put Backstrom back in on the first line and drop all the centers a slot in the lineup? That would break up a first line that played great against the Blackhawks and a third line that has been centered by Jay Beagle and possibly been the team’s most consistent thus far.

Or will he move Burakvosky back to wing and displace Johansson or Justin Williams, who has been solid every game on the second line. Or could Trotz possibly move Jason Chimera, who has been great in the first three games, or Tom Wilson, who the Caps are trying to groom for a permanent top-nine role, from the third line? The final combinations for tonight will be interesting to say the least.


Coach Barry Trotz’ Grade for the Team: B+

Trotz was clear that he was pleased by the effort, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.


The Players’ Perspective

There was more of a sense of relief than satisfaction in the locker room, although the players seemed please with the rebound effort:


T.J. Oshie

“Everyone was disappointed with how we played {Tuesday}. The bounces don’t go your way one night, and you can’t handle that. Things you can control are getting worked out – how hard you play, how well you stick together. So tonight, I think we took a big step forward in the things we can control, and the game took care of itself.”

Braden Holtby

“We were ready to play, and we were ready to skate – were on the same page. I think the other night was a pretty good wakeup call for us, and we had a good response, especially the first period. We had a good practice yesterday – guys were clicking a little bit more and working a little bit harder. I think guys realize it’s go-time now.”


Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen tallied his second goal of the year vs. Chicago. (James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports)
Matt Niskanen tallied his second goal of the year vs. Chicago. (James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports)

“Our compete level was so much higher than the other night. That was pretty evident to everyone in the building. Sometimes you have to execute a little better to play faster. If you’re sloppy with the puck, nobody gets to play fast because you’re always stopping. The pucks turn over, and you don’t get any momentum going. I think we executed a little better coming out of our own zone and took care of the puck through the neutral zone. When you do that you can keep the puck moving north, and everybody can build up speed, so we look faster. “


Players’ Grade for Themselves: B+ (based on postgame coments)


Statistically Speaking

Sometimes the good old stats we grew up with are enough to get a sense for how the game went. Thursday night the Caps were all over Chicago in the first period, taking a 1-0 lead and holding the Black Hawks to just one shot through the first 14 minutes. The Blackhawks ramped it up a bit for the final six minutes of the first, getting four shots to the net to end the stanza trailing in shots 9-5.

Chicago gave up an early goal in the second but went on to a 17-7 shots edge, totally controlling the play for most of the second 20 minutes. Had the Hawks buried a couple of quality chances the outcome could have been much different, which is why Holtby ended up as the first star. Then, in the third period, the Caps held Chicago to just three shots over the final 16-plus minutes to close out the victory.

For one night at least the ebb and flow of the old-school shots-on-goal stat provided a pretty realistic indication of how the game played out. Still, there were some interesting nuggets to be gleaned from the numbers we are tracking in this space:


  • The two teams combined for just one dump-in during the first 10 minutes of the second period, not surprising for clubs that have a number of skilled players. However, as both teams’ offensive grey-zone turnovers piled up, (five for each team in the second), the number of dump-ins rose proportionally. The Caps finished the period with seven dump-ins, compared to the Hawks’ five, meaning that 11 of the 12 overall in the period came in the final 10 minutes.
  • In closing out the win effectively in the third period, Washington dumped the puck in eight times, which is the exact same number of dump-ins they recorded in dominating the first period. In turn, Washington’s offensive grey-zone turnovers dropped from 11 over the first two periods to two in the final frame.
  • Looking at the third-period dump-ins a little more closely, seven of the Caps’ dump-ins were of the 50/50 variety, meaning they were making a choice to get the puck in deep and forecheck, forcing Chicago to go 200 feet and eat up as much of the clock as possible. Of Washington’s eight first-period dump-ins, five were 50/50 dumps and three were safe dumps to allow for line changes or to buy time on delayed offsides calls.
  • For the evening the Caps recovered five of their 17 50/50 dump-ins (29.4 percent), compared to four out of 24 vs. the Sharks (16.7), an indication of better pressure on the forecheck.
  • Further indicating better pressure was Washington’s ability to bottle up the Blackhawks coming out of their own end. Chicago committed nine defensive grey-zone turnovers for the game, including six in the tone-setting first period. The Caps committed just five similar miscues on the evening.