Four Corners of the Rink: Capitals vs. Hurricanes Review

Evgeny Kuznetsov
Despite the return of Nick Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov remained on the Caps’ top line. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

The game didn’t have the energy or pace of the victory against the Blackhawks, but for most of the evening Saturday at Verizon Center the performance was even more dominant as the Washington Capitals overcame the early-game netminding heroics of Cam Ward, getting a huge boost from center Nicklas Backstrom’s return, en route to a 4-1 victory to improve to 3-1 on the year.

Backstrom, who was returning from hip surgery performed some four months ago, looked like he had never been off the ice, notching a goal and two assists in his 2015-16 season debut to earn first-star honors. T.J. Oshie scored for the second straight game, working some power-play magic with maestro Backstrom, and added an assist to get the third star, while Braden Holtby was sharp in net despite facing just 19 shots. The only goal he allowed was a flukey one that actually resulted from a 2-on-1 pass by Jeff Skinner that bounced off his skates and between his legs.

Oshie and Backstrom were the only multiple-point performers for the Caps, who once again got goals from John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin (his third in three games). Carlson continued his early-season offensive spree and now leads the team in scoring with 2-3-5, followed by Ovechkin (3-1-4) and Oshie (2-2-4).

Washington, which had been pretty good on the power play at 3-for-11 coming into the contest, took it to another level with its quarterback back in the lineup, going 2-for-2 with the extra man to move into second place in the NHL for the season with in power-play efficiency at 5-for-13 (38.5 percent). Holtby lowered his goals-against average to 2.04 and has a .920 save percentage on the year.

The Capitals dominated possession and shots on goal, piling up a 16-3 shots advantage in the first 16 minutes and ending the first period leading by a 17-5 margin. That advantage was extended to 19-6 just 2:30 into the second stanza before a 5-on-3 power play allowed Carolina to fire six shots on goal and create four scoring chances, including a puck that skittered through the crease off of the stick of Chris Versteeg with Holtby caught out of position.

Skinner’s quirky goal in the third really was the only sign of life from the Hurricanes all night other than the 5-on-3 power play. Skinner’s tally made it 2-1 at 7:45 of the third period, but the Caps responded with Carlson’s power-play marker less than two minutes later and controlled the game the rest of the way.

Washington ended the contest with a 34-19 shots advantage, but that margin was 30-8 during 5-on-5 play.


The Fans-Eye View

Although the game was against a less-than-marquee opponent, there is always more energy in Verizon Center for weekend games, and this was no exception. That energy was fueled by Backstrom’s return, and he got a rousing ovation when he took the ice for his first shift with the “second line.” The strong first-period showing for the second straight outing seemed to carry over for the fans and players as the usual second-period lull was avoided.


The fans’ report card:

Final Result: A

This possibly was the most complete effort of the year by the Capitals. Much more talented than the Canes, Washington jumped on them early and didn’t take the foot off the gas. Backstrom’s return and his performance couldn’t have been scripted any better.

Atmosphere: A

There was much more buzz and excitement than in the previous two games with it being a Saturday and thanks to the return of Backstrom.


Pace of the Game: B

The game didn’t quite have the pace of the Blackhawks tilt, but there were plenty of up-and-down scoring chances and odd-man breaks.


Home Team Effort and Energy: B+

While this was possibly Washington’s most complete all-around game of the year, the forecheck and neutral zone energy wasn’t quite up to the standard set against the Blackhawks. But the 5-on-3 kill in the second period and the quick response to Carolina’s third-period goal showed that the team is maturing and starting to do whatever it takes to win.


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, Backstrom played like he had never been out of the lineup, both goalies made great saves and there was a little scrap at the end in which Ovechkin punched Versteeg, who had slashed Evegeny Kuznetsov after taking a hard check from the young Russian.


Overall Fan Grade: A

A solid win and people finally got a glimpse of how good this team can be when playing with its full lineup.


Coach’s Corner

Barry Trotz seemed genuinely happy with his team's effort vs. Carolina. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
Barry Trotz seemed genuinely happy with his team’s effort vs. Carolina. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)


In the span of less than a week we’ve gone from Barry Trotz ripping his team for a “terrible game” against San Jose to his having to keep things in perspective and keep his guys a little humble after two really strong outings in a row. For Trotz, though, his postgame comments indicated that he is happy with how the team has progressed through the first week of the season.

“Game one I thought we are a little rusty and game two I didn’t like our game at all,” Trotz said. “It just wasn’t up to NHL pace. I loved our response against the Blackhawks, and I thought our response today was good. Our last two first periods, something that we hadn’t been real strong at last year, they’ve been good. So we’re 3-1, going on the road, and that’s probably the biggest positive. We know how important it is to get in the race, be in the race and stay in the race. We’re learning a lot about our team … I thought we were pretty good up and down the lineup tonight.”

In the past the power play has propelled the Caps to victory on many a night, but against Carolina each special teams unit was on top of its game.

“Both special teams were really good tonight,” Trotz said. “The power play got us the first goal, and it gave us a good response right after they scored. We had a really good shift and drew the penalty and then hit on that. So it was a good response by the group and both special teams.”

Further expanding on the special teams, Trotz spoke highly of the penalty-killing unit, which has flourished despite losing key penalty-killing forwards Joel Ward and Eric Fehr from last year’s lineup. New faces on the PK this year have included Justin Williams, who brings a more aggressive forechecking and defensive zone presence than we are accustomed to in man-down situations, and Tom Wilson. Jason Chimera is playing a larger role this season, and Brooks Laich also has continued his solid play on the penalty kill. Getting through Carolina’s second-period 5-on-3 unscathed seemed to break the Canes’ spirit, and the Caps responded with several shots on goal and scoring chances, only to be stonewalled by Ward, immediately following that kill to seize the momentum.

While the return of Backstrom provided Trotz with extra depth at forward, it also forced him to make some lineup decisions. Kunznetsov had moved into Backstrom’s top-line center slot in the Swede’s absence, and that top group, including T.J. Oshie, really started to demonstrate some chemistry in the Blackhawks game after generating many great scoring chances in the first three contests. Many observers wondered if Trotz would move Backstrom right back into his familiar role alongside Ovechkin or let those three continue to develop as a unit with Backstrom skating between countryman Marcus Johansson and Williams.

Trotz chose the latter solution, and clearly it paid off as Backstrom blended nicely with Johansson, who is playing some of his best hockey since coming to D.C., and Williams. The question then became what to do with talented second-year forward Andre Burakovsky, who had been centering the second group, especially considering how well the third line of Chimera, Jay Beagle and Wilson had played up to that point.

Burakovsky was dropped to wing, a position he seemed more comfortable in last year, on the fourth line with newcomer Chandler Stephenson and Laich. The fourth line ended up turning in its best performance of the year, with each player getting quality scoring opportunities and providing a mixture of speed, skill and willingness to battle in the corners. Burakvosky seemed to stop over-thinking his game and played much more free and relaxed, which was noticeable in both his and the line’s overall contribution.

Signed in the off-season, Taylor Chorney is making a case for a full-time role. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)
Signed in the off-season, Taylor Chorney is making a case for a full-time role. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

Another recent lineup decision made by Trotz was to insert journeymen off-season acquisition Taylor Chorney into the lineup as part of the team’s third defensive pairing alongside Dmitry Orlov. Orlov and Nate Schmidt struggled a bit in the first two games, prompting the move, which so far has worked out well.

“In a couple of key moments {Chorney} had good blocks and good box-outs,” Trotz said. “He skated, if you will, was confident with the puck. Sometimes you have situations where you have to skate the puck out of trouble, and he was able to do that. He was pretty solid.”

Rumor has it that the Caps also have been working on adding some new wrinkles to the power play, annually one of the NHL’s best, to open up more space in the slot for Oshie and still provide Ovechkin opportunities for one-timers from his “office.”

“They’re pretty tough to control. It’s not as static as it was,” Trotz said. “They have a few things that they’ve been working on to get some more movement, which is great. The big key for that power play is that obviously they can execute and make plays, but it’s the retrievals. Anytime they lose it there’s great retrievals. The breakouts are good, but the retrievals are key. They had a long, extended one where they retrieved a bunch of pucks after an initial chance or a secondary chance, and when you get those penalty killers tired over a long period of time, those holes are going to start opening up and our guys are going to finish.”


Coach Barry Trotz’ Grade for the Team: A

He clearly indicated that he thought the team as a whole played a solid game, mentioning at one point that the players seem much more comfortable playing with a lead and are much better at closing out games than they were at this time last year.


The Players’ Perspective

There was even more optimism in the locker room Saturday, mostly buoyed by having number 19 back in the fold.


Nicklas Backstrom

“I was a little bit lucky, to be honest. I was coming into this game with an attitude to win. That’s all I was thinking about. I think we did a great job in the last two games –a lot better than the first two. It was also nice to be back on the ice. It’s fun to practice, but it’s better to play games.”


Alex Ovechkin on Backstrom’s Return

“Obviously he is our key guy. He and Kuzy can do the same job. It’s great to have him back after surgery. It seems like he hasn’t missed a game.”


Alex Ovechkin on the Key Penalty Kill

“{It gave us} a lot of momentum, obviously. It was a geat job by our PK and our goalie. Holts made huge saves at the end of the second. That’s why we have him – to protect our net when we make mistakes.”


Braden Holtby on the Return of Backstrom

“I’ve said it before, our team runs off Nick when we are at our best.” I thought we did a good job of trying to battle when he was out, and it will make us better in the long run, having those three games to realize what we can do without Nick, because he covers up so many mistakes that we make by how good and how smart he is and how many key minutes he eats up. You can’t really put a value on a guy like Nick.”


Braden Holtby on the 5-on-3 Penalty Kill

“It was huge, obviously. There is always a time in the game where defensively you have to turn it back in your favor. Guys did a very good job on the PK all night and on the 5-on-3 especially. I thought our focus on the details was good .”


Players’ Grade for Themselves: A


Statistically Speaking

Brooks Laich, Washington Capitals, NHL, Milestones
Brooks Laich has continued to be a key penalty killer in D.C. (James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports)

This was another one of those games where the old-time hockey stats pretty much told the story. Washington jumped out to shots-on-goal leads of 16-3, 17-5 and 19-6 in taking a 1-0 lead then surrendered six shots and four scoring opportunities on the key 5-on-3 penalty kill. After two periods the shots were 27-12 in the Caps’ favor, including 24-4 at full strength, and ended up 34-19 for the game (30-8 at 5-on-5). Some other stats showed that Washington did throw some new wrinkles into the game plan on this evening:


  • The Capitals’ overall dump-in recovery rate (9-for-22, 41%) was its highest for the year, primarily because they went 5-for-5 on dump-ins with a purpose, which are dumps in which a player on the team dumping the puck has a direct path toward recovering it before anyone on the opposing team. Conversely, in a strong forechecking game vs. Chicago in their previous outing, the Caps recovered five of 23 overall dump-ins (21.7%), none of which were made with a purpose other than letting players battle for possession.
  • The purposeful dumps came mostly in the second period after Washington had committed nine grey-zone offensive turnovers trying to enter the zone with possession in the first period. Perhaps they saw something in Carolina’s neutral-zone alignment that allowed them to make those dump-ins directly to teammates on the opposite side of the ice.
  • The Caps still had a strong forechecking game as indicated by their 5-for-14 recovery rate (35.7%) on 50/50 dump-ins and the nine defensive grey-zone turnovers they forced.
  • Washington continued its game-closing strategy of dumping the puck when with the lead, recording five 50/50 dumps and one safe dump in the third period while committing no offensive grey-zone turnovers. The Caps combined for 14 offensive grey-zone turnovers in the first two periods.
  • Carolina maintained a dump-and-chase strategy throughout the contest, attempting 20 50/50 dump-ins, including six in the third period. They recovered none of their first nine dump-ins as Washington took control of the game, but were an eye-popping 7-for-11 after that.
  • The Canes committed just seven grey-zone offensive turnovers for the game, further indicative of their dump-and-chase approach.