UNIONDALE, N.Y. – A lack of defence has cost the Washington Capitals dearly in the playoffs during the Alex Ovechkin era. That’s why this sudden dry spell for their usually high-powered attack could end up paying off once the post-season comes around.
Don’t think the Capitals are turning into a trapping, shutdown club. They still will rely on the likes of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green to score. But if they can learn how to grind out those tight, one-goal games, that will only help.
Ovechkin assisted on goals by Jason Chimera and Backstrom, and rookie Braden Holtby made 24 saves in his return from the minors to lift the Capitals to a 2-1 victory over the New York Islanders on Thursday night.
“We’re not scoring, so we’d better be aware of the defensive end,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We’re only averaging about two goals a game for the past 20.”
Ovechkin had the primary assist on Chimera’s first-period goal and on Backstrom’s goal in the second that put Washington ahead 2-0. It was a rare feat for the Capitals, who had recently been saving all their offence for third periods.
The Capitals are 2-0-1 following an 0-2-1 skid but Washington’s high-powered offence failed to score more than three goals for the 12th straight game.
“Eventually they will start scoring again at the rate they are capable,” Boudreau said. “If they learn to play defence and then they get the balance with the offence, our team will be in good shape.”
Backstrom snapped a 21-game goal drought by scoring his first since Dec. 1.
“Hopefully, you guys will stop asking me about it,” he said with a laugh.
Michael Grabner cut the Islanders’ deficit in half in the second, but it wasn’t enough for New York, which has lost five of six (1-4-1). Rick DiPietro returned from sitting out a 5-2 home loss to New Jersey on Monday, termed by Islanders coach Jack Capuano as a “maintenance day” for the oft-injured goalie, and stopped 22 shots.
New York got some good news as Kyle Okposo, the team’s second-leading scorer last season, played for the first time since injuring his shoulder during training camp. His linemate, Frans Nielsen, came back after missing seven games because of a groin injury.
“I was a little rusty the first couple of shifts,” said Nielsen, a defensive-minded forward. “Once I got into it, it was OK but it definitely wasn’t my best game this year.
“It was a tough game.”
Okposo had a few chances during a first-period power play, but failed to get on the score sheet in his debut. The Islanders were 0 for 6 on the advantage.
The 21-year-old Holtby was recalled by the Capitals from Hershey of the AHL on Wednesday after Michal Neuvirth was injured in the first period of Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss at Philadelphia. Holtby (3-2-1) was sent to Hershey after allowing five goals on 23 shots in a 5-0 loss at New Jersey on Nov. 22. He also gave up three goals on five shots to Atlanta three days earlier.
“It really shows mental toughness,” Boudreau said. “It happens all the time where you doubt yourself when you leave on a bad note. It was a great moment for him.”
Washington had scored all its goals in the previous two games in the third period. The Capitals have outscored opponents 11-2 in the third in the last 10 games and 48-32 on the season.
Last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners took care of the Islanders early.
“We started off pretty good. All the guys were just flying out there,” Backstrom said. “That reminded me of last year. We came out hard every game. That’s what we’ve got to do to win.”
The Capitals took a 1-0 lead 3:41 in on Chimera’s seventh goal. Ovechkin sent a precision pass from the middle of the right circle across to Chimera, who got free of defenceman Andrew MacDonald at the left post and easily redirected the puck past DiPietro.
Backstrom and Ovechkin teamed up to double the lead 3:38 into the second. Backstrom dished the puck at the blue line to Ovechkin, who streaked toward the net and shoved a backhanded shot in on DiPietro. The rebound sat there for Backstrom to charge in and score his 12th goal.
The Islanders got one back soon on a play the Capitals would like to have back.
Josh Bailey lofted the puck out of the Islanders end toward the neutral zone. Capitals defenceman John Carlson took a halfhearted swipe at it over his head with his stick, but missed. Grabner gained control and zoomed past him, cutting in alone on Holtby and beating him with a backhander at 5:15.
Notes: Backstrom has an assist in nine of 12 games. … The Capitals’ 1-0 edge after the first period marked their first lead at an intermission since the second period of the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 against Pittsburgh. Washington had played seven games since that 3-1 win, going 2-2-3. … D Brian Fahey, recalled by Washington from Hershey on Thursday, was scratched. … The Islanders were 1-4-2 without Nielsen. D Milan Jurcina sat out because of an undisclosed upper body injury sustained Monday.