Playing their first game in 10 days, the Capitals took an early lead over the Boston Bruins on Saturday and never relinquished it on their way to a 2-1 victory over the NHL’s top team.
Boston entered the game with 83 points, good for first place in the Atlantic Division and the highest total in the league. The favorites to win the President’s Trophy had been particularly difficult to beat at their home arena TD Garden, where they sported a 22-1-3 record.
The Capitals were coming off their bye week after an up-and-down January that saw inconsistent results on the power play and a few uncharacteristic outings for goaltender Darcy Kuemper. None of those trends carried over into play Saturday as Nicklas Backstrom scored a 5-on-3 tally in the first and Kuemper engineered one of his more impressive wins of the season.
Backstrom’s second power-play goal in three games gave the Capitals the 1-0 lead six and a half minutes in. The power play originally belonged to Boston, but a series of penalties against the home team gave Washington a 5-on-3 advantage for 16 seconds. Backstrom and Marcus Johansson were quick to apply pressure up front and the former slammed it home.
The most impressive performance for the Capitals was between the pipes. Kuemper struggled over his final four starts in January, allowing 13 goals across the four games — two of which resulted in head coach Peter Laviolette pulling him early. Facing the highest-scoring team in hockey Saturday, he stopped 27 of 28 shots to protect the Capitals’ slim lead all afternoon.
In a physical contest that saw the two teams combine for 12 penalties, Kuemper made several key stops in 4-on-4, 4-on-5 and 4-on-6 situations to prevent the Bruins’ top-ranked power play unit from taking over. He improved to 16-14-4 with a .916 save percentage and 2.57 GAA.
Boston threatened to take over the game in the second, outshooting the Capitals 11-4 and scoring its lone goal of the afternoon on a shot by left wing Nick Foligno. Yet, as it’s done often this season, the Capitals’ fourth line provided a boost on the offensive end with a strong play by Garnet Hathaway to keep the puck in the zone and score off the crossbar.
With the win, the Capitals leaped back in front of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. It was an impressive start to the second half for a Washington team that will face the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes twice over the next week. First up will be the San Jose Sharks for the second leg of a back-to-back Sunday.