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4 reasons why the Caps beat the Islanders

4 reasons why the Caps beat the Islanders

The Capitals returned home in desperate need of two points and they earned them Thursday in a tense 4-3 win over the New York Islanders. The Islanders tied the game three times, but the Caps were still able to fend them off for the win. Here's how.

Lars Eller

With the scored tied at 3 in the third period and all the momentum on the Islanders’ side, Eller delivered the game-winner with less than four minutes remaining in the game. To those watching, it came as no surprise that Eller would be the hero because he had been feeling it all game long. He finished with two goals and an assist in what may be his best performance in his time in Washington.

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Washington scored first

For the first time in eight games, the Capitals got the first goal of the game. In October, Washington had allowed the first goal an NHL-high nine times in 12 games. The Caps did not have to start the game chasing the other team and, in fact, never had to at all as they never trailed over the course of 60 minutes.

Depth scoring

For the first time this season, the Caps were able to get a win despite getting zero points from Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie or Evgeny Kuznetsov. Taylor Chorney is now just the second defenseman on the team with a goal, Alex Chiasson got his first as a Cap and, led by Eller, the third line was something special.

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The third line

Eller wasn’t the only one who had a big night, it was the entire third line of Eller, Chandler Stephenson and Tom Wilson. The first goal was set up by a steal in the defensive zone by Eller that led to a 3-on-2 in the other direction. While they did not get a goal on the rush, Stephenson was able to find the trailing Chorney who had plenty of room to score after the Islanders skaters collapsed down low. Stephenson later found Eller with a nice pass to the slot which Eller finished off. Stephenson’s two assists were the first two assists of his NHL career. He now has three points in the four games he has played this season and is making a case for sticking around in Washington. The third line seems to have found some chemistry which is good news for a Capitals team that has been far too top-heavy offensively in the first month of the season.

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In a game that was all about offense, it was a penalty kill the sealed the win for the Caps

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In a game that was all about offense, it was a penalty kill the sealed the win for the Caps

The big story out of Wednesday's win was the return of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as linemates. The new lines sparked the Caps' offense as they jumped out to a 4-0 lead over the Ottawa Senators. But despite the offensive burst, it was a key penalty kill in the second period that won the game.

Midway through the second period, Ottawa forward Ryan Dzingel finally stopped the bleeding with a goal to make it 4-1. At that point, the game was still seemingly well in hand. Washington had dominated to that point and there was no reason to think the Senators would come back. Even when Dzingel scored the goal, it did not feel like momentum was shifting back in the Senators' favor.

That all changed 30 seconds later.

Alex Ovechkin was called for high-sticking and when play was stopped, Nicklas Backstrom tussled with Ben Harpur and both players were sent to the box leading to a 4-on-3 for Ottawa. Just 44 seconds in, Tom Wilson was called for a slash giving the Senators 1:16 of a two-man advantage to work with. Just one goal would have made it a game. The deficit would have been cut to 2 with over a period remaining.

A game that had seemed all but over suddenly seemed to be somewhat in doubt. Yes, Ottawa still had a steep hill to climb, but a power play goal would have made a comeback seem possible.

But then, the Caps' much-maligned penalty kill unit stepped up and killed off both penalties to keep the lead at 4-1.

How important was that kill?

"When we're on 5-on-3 that was huge," Barry Trotz said after the game. "They didn't score there, I knew we were going to win. I didn't know just by how much, but I knew we were going to win."

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Why now? Barry Trotz explains his decision to reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom

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Why now? Barry Trotz explains his decision to reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom

Barry Trotz did seemingly everything he could to avoid it, but secretly he was thinking just as much about reuniting Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as you were. He surprised everyone on Wednesday by putting the two back together on the top line and the move had instant results as the Capitals battled to a 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators.

A 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames on Monday highlighted the team’s top-six struggles at even strength. Ovechkin, Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov all were struggling to produce at the level the Caps need in order to be successful.

You can talk about wanting to avoid making the team too top-heavy all we want, but in the end, being top-heavy is better than not producing at all.

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So with the team’s top players still struggling, the talk after the Calgary game all focused on whether Trotz would consider putting Ovechkin and Backstrom back together, a combination that has been incredibly successful for the Caps in the past.

Trotz, however, seemed hesitant to make the move.

The lines remained unchanged at practice. When asked why not reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom, he told reporters after Tuesday’s practice that he didn’t feel like it. He told the Sports Junkies on Wednesday that Ovechkin can be difficult to play with and that it was hard to find matches for him.

And yet, when the players took to the ice for warmups on Wednesday prior to the game against Ottawa, Ovechkin and Backstrom were together again.

“I've been thinking about it for a while,” Trotz said.

It is obvious why Trotz would put Ovechkin and Backstrom back together. Their chemistry was evident in Wednesday’s game. But Trotz has avoided making that move up to now through the first quarter of the season.

“[Ovechkin] demands such presence,” Trotz said. “He's the greatest goal-scorer in his generation, I've said that many times, and you need a very intelligent player and you have to get used to playing with him because when he gets into those areas … he can score in those tight windows which any other players can't. It's as much getting used to playing with someone else and all that.”

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“By playing [Evgeny Kuznetsov] for such a long time with [Ovechkin] too,” Trotz added, “It opens up some windows so that we have those options.”

Basically, Trotz’s reasoning is that players need to adjust and learn how to play with Ovechkin. He always knew he could go back to Ovechkin-Backstrom, but it is much harder to start with Ovechkin-Backstrom and split them up out of necessity.

As Trotz would later put it on Wednesday, “If you love something you set it free, if it comes back it was meant to be.”

Clearly, it was meant to be as there’s just no denying that when Ovechkin and Backstrom are together, their play ascends to another level.