Coming off their most lopsided loss under his watch, Barry Trotz and the Capitals had a chance to prove themselves against the defending Stanley Cup champions and they seized it.
Anchored by a 26-save effort by Braden Holtby (22 of them in the first two periods), the Capitals played a much grittier and fundamentally sound hockey game in Thursday’s 4-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks than they had two nights earlier in a humiliating 5-0 loss to the Sharks.
“I thought it was a good response to an absolutely terrible game against the Sharks,” Trotz said after seeing his team improve to 2-1-0. “The guys can tell it’s a lot more fun when you put in the full commitment.”
T.J. Oshie and John Carlson each recorded a goal and an assist, and Alex Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen added goals to give the Caps the win. But it was Marcus Johansson who played a role in three of the Capitals’ goals, providing a screen on two of them and feeding Niskanen for another.
“That’s what it’s about,” Johansson said. “We’ve got to get a little dirty. Last game we didn’t get to the dirty areas. As long as someone scores, it doesn’t matter who. All we want to do is win, any way we can do it.”
Trotz said he liked everything about Johansson’s game against the Hawks.
“He was first on pucks, he was winning battles, he was skating, he was thinking shot, he was making plays,” Trotz said. “I thought he was real solid.”
The same could be said for the Caps’ checking line of Jay Beagle, Jason Chimera and Tom Wilson, who held Patrick Kane to just one shot the entire evening.
And for the first time all season, the Caps’ top line of Ovechkin, Oshie and Kuznetsov looked good in all three zones, creating 14 chances at the net – 10 of them by Ovechkin (6 shots, 3 blocked, 1 miss) – while playing sound defensively.
“As a team as a whole we really simplified our play on our side of the red line and I think that led to more scoring opportunities,” said Oshie, who scored on his only shot of the game. “We were talking a lot more tonight and when you do those little things good it can wear a team down.”
Trotz said he’s starting to see better communication between Oshie and Ovechkin.
“He wants to get the puck to (Ovechkin).” Trotz said of Oshie. “But I think Ovi has gone to him and said, ‘Hey, just make the right play. If you get a chance to shoot it, just hammer it. And if I get a chance to shoot it I’m gonna shoot it.’”
With his top three lines coming off one of their best games, Trotz may have some decision making to do if center Nicklas Backstrom returns to the lineup on Saturday. He said he would “probably” keep his top line together, meaning someone is getting bumped off the second line of Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Justin Williams.
That decision could come on Friday when the Caps return to practice at Kettler.