Four Corners of the Rink: Capitals Western Trip Review

Justin Williams Capitals
Justin Williams has given a consistently strong effort thus far. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

With a 3-1 start to the season under their belts and the return of Nicklas Backstrom to the lineup, the Washington Capitals left D.C. for their first road trip of the year, the always-difficult three-game swing through Alberta and Vancouver, with guarded optimism.

It was guarded because the first week of the season had hardly been perfect. I mean their captain overslept and was late to the morning skate on a day the Caps laid an egg and lost to San Jose 5-0, and head coach Barry Trotz chastised his team for bad first periods and uneven efforts in the opening two contests. Western trips often have been difficult, to say the least, for Washington teams over the years, too, so it really was not the right time for the team to be overconfident.

In that brief three-game span, however, the Caps sent notice to the rest of the NHL that they are a team to be reckoned with, and one that can score in bunches – whether they are at home or playing in enemy territory. And perhaps the biggest statement of all was sent by Washington’s scintillating young center Evegeny Kuznetsov, who put up three goals and six assists, capped by a hat trick and five-point effort in Edmonton last Friday, to go along with a plus-5 rating on the trip.

Kuznetsov was named the NHL’s top star of the week for his efforts as fans in hockey-crazy western Canada witnessed firsthand the birth of a new NHL star.

Barry Trotz is please with his team but still wants more. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
Barry Trotz is please with his team but still wants more. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

“He’s a really young player who we knew how good he was, and now he’s getting more and more confident,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He can do a lot of damage in different ways. He’s a great passer, his skating skills are exceptional and he can shoot the puck, too. He and {Alexander Ovechkin} have a little chemistry and with {T.J.} Oshie they’re a tough line. Then you come back with {Nicklas Backstrom} and get to bring him back slowly. It’s a good one-two punch for us. “

Added linemate Oshie: “You’d think I’d seen it all in the short span that I’ve been here, but I think there’s still more to come. He’s a great player and a great teammate. He can do some amazing things with the puck out there, and it’s honestly a lot of fun to play with him.”

Perhaps most impressive about the Caps’ western sweep was the offensive firepower and resiliency they displayed in winning while playing three very different types of games. The 6-2 victory in Calgary was a very complete, workmanlike effort in which they dominated after falling behind 1-0 in the opening period, scoring four straight goals after the initial tally, outshooting the Flames 30-19 and responding with two backbreaking goals after Calgary pulled within two in the third period.

In that victory at the Saddledome Ovechkin became the second-youngest player to reach 900 career points, and Kuznetsov turned in the assist of the year to date with a no look, behind-the-back feed to Andre Burakovsky from behind the net that froze both Calgary defensemen and goaltender Karri Ramo, who later was benched and then ultimately placed on waivers after the game.

In a 3-2, tighter-checking, come-from-behind thriller at Vancouver, Washington trailed 2-1 after the opening 40 minutes before getting goals from Jay Beagle and Ovechkin in the third for the win. Ovechkin had been foiled on several quality scoring opportunities by the sprawling Ryan Miller, consistently a thorn in the Caps’ side over the years, before breaking through with a top-shelf one-timer off a slick feed from, you guessed it, Kuznetsov. That 2-on-1 was set up by an equally nifty 140-foot indirect pass from Dmitry Orlov from behind the Caps’s net and through the seams of Vancouver’s 1-2-1-1 forehceck/trap.

Washington used a stifling neutral-zone scheme to keep the Canucks from generating any third-period flow. The Caps forced eight turnovers at the attacking blue line by Vancouver in the third after creating just four similar miscues in the opening two frames. Washington weathered the final two minutes, during which the Canucks had zone possession for all but about 10 seconds, and held a 16-5 blocked shots advantage for the game.

Philipp Grubauer finally saw game action in Edmonton. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
Philipp Grubauer finally saw game action in Edmonton. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

The final contest of the road swing turned out to be a track meet in Edmonton in which Kuznetsov recorded his first career hat trick and dished out a pair of assists as the Caps literally sprinted their way to a 7-4 victory in backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer’s first appearance of the season. Grubauer was the victim of at least two goals resulting from flukey bounces and rebounded from a difficult start to finish with 19 saves.

Despite the outpouring of offense and breakneck pace of the game, the Caps held Edmonton to just five shots on goal in the third period and out-chanced the Oilers 5-0 in the final stanza. Again Washington stepped up and defended the neutral zone aggressively to close out the win, forcing eight Edmonton turnovers at the offensive blue line as compared to just two during the first two periods.

“We talk a lot about having to win games in different ways and that we’re going to need different heroes every night and need to find a little consistency in our game,” Trotz said. “It says a lot about the group in terms of not being satisfied.”

And although he was happy with the road trip, Trotz made it clear that he, too, was not satisfied: “I wasn’t happy with our Edmonton game. We scored some nice goals, scored seven goals, and that’s all fine and dandy, but it wasn’t the seven I was concerned about it was the four, because we let Edmonton hang around and gave them what I thought were a few easy goals just by not being sharp in certain areas … We sort of let them inch back into the game here and there, and I want to get rid of that. So we still have lots of things to work on.”


The Fans-Eye View

All three of the games on the Western swing were enjoyable to watch for any hockey fan. There was plenty of speed and skill on display, a bunch of goals were scored and there was a third-period comeback. Even with the late starts the games were worth losing a few hours of sleep.


The fans’ report card:

Overall Road Trip Result: A

Three wins on a tough swing through Alberta and British Columbia. You can’t ask for more than that.

Atmosphere: B

There always is a great buzz when the Caps and Ovechkin play in Canada – both among the fans and the media – and this trip was no different, but the Caps really took the usually rabid Calgary and Edmonton fans out of those games early and the crowd in Vancouver never really got into that game at all.


Pace of the Games: A

All three games, even the relatively low-scoring game in Vancouver, featured a lot of up-and-down play and odd-man rushes.


Caps Effort and Energy: A

While the first period in Vancouver was a bit sluggish, for the most part the Caps outskated and outworked all three opponents consistently.


Offense: A+

16 goals in three games.


Action: A+

While none of the three games was overly physical, all three featured great displays of skill, beautiful goals and even some amazing saves. Miller had four or five unbelievable stops, including at least two on Ovechkin. The Caps had several tic-tac-toe passing goals on the trip, breakaway goals, the Kuznetsov-to-Burakovsky pass, a ridiculous pass from Justin Williams to Backstrom in the slot from behind the net through a defenseman’s legs and Ovechkin’s game-winner.


Overall Fan Grade: A

The Caps proved to be a potential offensive juggernaut capable of shutting teams down in the third period, a formula that bodes well for the future.


Coach’s Corner

Jay Beagle
Jay Beagle had a big third-period goal at Vancouver. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

As indicated earlier Trotz was pleased with his team’s overall performance on its first road trip while still indicating there was work to be done going forward. He gave the team two days off upon returning home, but immediately got them focused on their approach and goals for the season upon returning to the rink.

“We talked about foundations. We actually talked about some team goals that we’d like to set. A lot of them were goals that we set last year, just enhanced a little bit based on where I think we should go. We talked about those, and about having some goals and sticking to what we do well … What I want is everyone to be settled in and to get through first road trip to see where we were. Before setting your goals you want to know where you want to be. So we talked about that, and it’s also a way to refocus after that trip. You have a few days off and a Halloween party and all that, so you have a little break. For non-athletes you take a couple days off and you go back to work and everything’s the same. In athletics if you get two or three days off you tend to lose focus and it takes a while to get back in rhythm, so I wanted to bring that back in, because that was our break and it’s a way to get everyone focused and bring them back in and say we’ve got to get some points here.”

He continued: “I told them, ‘Hey, we’re in third place right now, can you believe it? We’re 6-1 and in third place in our division, so we’ve got to get more wins plain and simple.’ That was a way of trying to get their focus again.”


Coach Barry Trotz’ Grade for the Team: A-

Trotz was pleased with the trip and the six points, but a little disappointed in the team’s defensive letdowns against Edmonton: “It’s 6-4 and they get a power play and can make it 6-5 and then you’re going down to the wire when that game should have ended up 6-1 or 6-2.”


The Players’ Perspective

To a man in the Caps’ locker room the message to the media was, we think we are pretty good, but we want to be – and can be – really good.


T.J. Oshie

“It’s gone pretty well. Obviously you’ve heard plenty of times, ‘Not the kind of start we wanted,’ but we got six big points on the road and had a comeback win, which I think is really big for the morale of the guys. So far so good and hopefully now we can keep it rolling.”


Nick Backstrom

“It’s really important to be good on the road; you can’t just be good at home. That was a really good road trip, but after this weekend we will reset and keep working to get better.”

Evegeny Kuznetsov on playing well in back-to-back games

“It’s back to back games. Before the game we talked about how bad we played in back to back games last year. We just kept focused on our game and trying to do the right things on the ice.”


Kuznetsov on the road trip

“That means that we are a great group of guys and try to play great and do the right things on the ice and play well with each other. “


Braden Holtby

“Coming into the Pittsburgh game it’s going to be tough. I think the Edmonton game we got away with a lot of things that we usually wouldn’t, and we can’t overlook that fact. We’re going to have to play a better game than we did in Edmonton against Pittsburgh. Four days off is a test mentally to try to keep sharp. That’s what good teams can do. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, when the game’s here you perform.

“We’ve played some very good games. We’ve gotten lucky a couple of games. I think we’ve jumped into this year thinking that we’re going to be a very good team from the start. Good thoughts and good energy in the room usually turns into good results. It’s easy to look at the standings right now and see that we are doing extremely well, but it’s early. The biggest thing for us is to not get complacent, to keep pushing forward, because teams are too good in this league. If you take your foot off the pedal for a second teams are going to catch up.”


Players’ Grade for Themselves: A


Statistically Speaking

Without getting too deep into the analytical stuff, just giving Washington’s road trip a simple eye test is very impressive:


Goals for: 16

Goals against: 8


Shots on goal for: 91

Shots on goal against: 72


Power play for: 2-for-7 (28.6%)

Power play against: 2-for-11 (18.2%)


Blocked shots for: 44

Blocked shots against: 31


As noted by Trotz and some of the players, though, there are areas that could be improved:


Faceoffs: 82-90 (47.8%)

Interestingly Backstrom had a game where he won 12% of his faceoffs and another where he won 65% of his draws.

Hits for: 43

Hits against: 49


Some interesting tidbits from the stats we are tracking in this space:

  • The Caps seem to have developed a formula for closing out games. In their three wins on the road trip they allowed just 20 third-period shots on goal, including five in the final period against Calgary. In their six victories overall they have allowed 41 third-period shots, an average of just 6.8.
  • In each of the three western wins Washington forced more grey-zone offensive turnovers in the third period than any other. The Caps forced five against Calgary after creating seven total in the first two periods, eight against Vancouver after forcing just four combined in the opening two frames and eight against Edmonton after forcing just two total in the first two periods.
  • Also against Edmonton, in addition to limiting the Oilers to just five shots on goal in the third period, the Caps held the Oilers without a scoring chance while creating five of their own in the final frame.
  • Washington continues to show a strong correlation between forechecking energy and victories. During the road trip the Caps recovered 30 of their 80 50/50 dump-ins (37.5%) compared to their opponents, who recovered 18 of 58 (31%).
  • The game against Calgary saw Washington recover a season-best 21 of 39 dump-ins (53.8%).