The skill of the Capitals beats the will of the Blues

If you outshoot a team 47-20, it’s reasonable to expect victory. That’s what the Blues did against the Capitals Sunday night at the Verizon Center, but it was the Caps who went home with a 4-1 win.

St. Louis did not more than double Washington’s effort on this night. No, the ice was tilted once Washington gained the early lead, but not 45 degrees as the statistics indicate. The outcome of this one hinged on two things. Goaltending is the first, of course. Braden Holtby made a career-high 46 saves and bumped his save percentage to .925. He was the game’s first star and the Caps wouldn’t have won it without a solid netminder behind them.

The other deciding factor was the high-end skill of the Capitals besting the Blues’ big guns. There’s no question the Caps have the edge in talent among forwards. To put it in terms of EA Sports NHL player ratings, Washington has a couple of 90s and some mid-80s, while the Blues have mid-80s across the board.

Alex Ovechkin (one of those 90s) opened the scoring with a slapper off the rush. No one in the NHL can score off the rush like Ovi. Take note of Nicklas Backstrom’s delicate touch-pass to spring No. 8.

Ovechkin also scored the game’s second goal, again set up beautifully by Backstrom. The Swedish pivot pulled the puck off the half-boards with a silky touch and released a tape-to-tape pass through the middle to the far point to create the play. Backstrom’s contribution was subtle, but illustrated his ability to distribute the puck at an elite level.

Later, Mikhail Grabovski corralled the puck out of the air as he entered the zone, then once again batted the puck out of the air, this time into the net. Yet another pretty play from a skilled forward.

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The Capitals have constructed a balanced group of forwards this season. Plenty of important pieces surrounding the elite skill of Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Johansson – Backstrom – Ovechkin
Erat – Laich – Brouwer
Chimera – Grabovski – Ward
Volpatti – Latta – Wilson

That lineup is fun to look at. Strength and diverse skill sets at all positions, playoff-tested vets, leadership aplenty, speed and grit, very little redundancy. Easy to imagine the Caps having a great playoff run this year with all the ingredients they have up front.

The Blues, with their lineup of star-but-not-superstar forwards, lack the game-breaking ability required to win the Cup. And no, Alexander Steen is not a superstar, nor is he talented enough to lean on for consistent goal production. Does it seem reasonable that a 29-year-old whose career-high single-season goal total is 24 is suddenly a true 30- or 40-goal scorer? It’s a mirage. Ovechkin scored two goals to Steen’s zero in Sunday’s contest, and it was a fitting representation how those two players stack up.

The Blues are a powerhouse, but they’re still missing a game-breaker up front. If either Steen or David Backes is the team’s most skilled forward, ask yourself this: when was the last time a team won the Cup without at least one forward better than either of those two? (Hint: if it’s ever happened, you’ll have to go back decades for an answer.)