WASHINGTON — Especially in games like Sunday afternoon’s, the Washington Capitals are reminded how good they have it. With some players battling an illness that’s working its way through the dressing room and the team not at its best during a matinee against the Philadelphia Flyers in Capital One Arena, goaltender Braden Holtby single-handedly can make up for all of that.
He made 35 saves in the Capitals’ 3-1 win, which snapped a two-game skid and extended Washington’s Metropolitan Division lead to three points over the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins. After Holtby kept the Capitals afloat with 19 saves in the second period, his teammates responded with an impressive third, holding Philadelphia to five shots on goal, and forward Jakub Vrana extended Washington’s lead with a breakaway goal.
“They worked for what they got, but I thought for the most part plays were in my grasp to stop,” Holtby said. “It’s one of those things when you’re in the [defensive] zone, you’ve got to trust each other, and I thought we did that.”
Vrana’s goal was his 22nd of the season and a testament to the Capitals’ depth: They have twice as many players with at least 20 goals (six) as they finished with a year ago. Of that group, most impressive is forward Tom Wilson, who has eclipsed that mark for the first time despite being suspended for the first 16 games of the season.
Wilson recorded his 22nd goal in 57 games with his deflection of defenseman Nick Jensen’s point shot 3:52 into the game. Wilson is tied with Vrana and right wing T.J. Oshie for the second-most goals on the team, behind captain Alex Ovechkin’s 48. Wilson has scored four goals in four games against the Flyers this season.
This is the first time since the 2006-07 campaign that Washington swept the season series against Philadelphia, and with three of those wins coming in March, the Capitals essentially stunted any postseason hopes the Flyers had. Asked whether the Capitals took some satisfaction in that, Wilson joked that he didn’t “want to say it on camera.”
“But they would feel the same way if it was reversed,” he added. “It’s always nice this time of year when you’re collecting those points and winning against teams that are playing desperate hockey. They’ve got guys on that side that battle pretty hard, and it’s never fun when you’re in that position. We’ll move forward. Those three games that we played against them the last month, those were big points both ways. We’re happy to have done what we did.”
Washington’s second goal also came on a deflection. After several impressive saves by Holtby, the fourth line moved up the ice, and winger Travis Boyd went to the front of the net, screening Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott as defenseman Matt Niskanen’s point shot approached. Boyd tipped it into the net at 10:47 for his fifth goal of the season, extending Washington’s lead to 2-0.
But after the first period was played evenly, Philadelphia had the puck more in the second, largely because the Flyers were awarded three straight power plays. They eventually capitalized; after a giveaway by Niskanen, Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek halved Washington’s lead with a power-play strike from the right faceoff circle at 17:10.
The Capitals had Holtby to thank for still holding the lead at the second intermission.
“You’re going to have nights where maybe you don’t have your ‘A’ game or whatever’s going on,” Boyd said. “If you have a goalie like Holts who can kind of pick up the slack on those nights, it makes things a lot easier for us.”
Sunday was the Capitals’ second straight game without defenseman Michal Kempny, who is out indefinitely after injuring his left leg in Wednesday’s overtime loss to the NHL-best Tampa Bay Lightning. Coach Todd Reirden has promised an update on Kempny’s status within the next week, but he’s unlikely to play before the playoffs begin in two weeks. Kempny is averaging more than 19 minutes per game, and Sunday featured some experimentation with how the Capitals will replace him.
Christian Djoos started the game in Kempny’s usual spot, beside top-pairing defenseman John Carlson, but Reirden rotated his blue line as the game went on. While Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov largely stayed together, Reirden tried Brooks Orpik with Carlson, and he also had Carlson skate on his off, left side with right-handed shot Nick Jensen.
“We’re looking for the right combinations that work for us that can set us up for future success,” Reirden said. “Just some guys that aren’t 100 percent in terms of sickness-wise, that are low on energy, so you have to manage those minutes as well. There are a lot of things in play that cause that type of mix-and-match stuff both up front and on our blue line.”
Fortunately for the Capitals, Holtby seemed to be feeling just fine.
“Kept us in the game until we were able to get some chances and convert on them,” Reirden said. “He was excellent.”