Five nights after they combined for a dozen goals in a barnburner of a game at NYCB Live, the Caps and the Islanders hooked up in a game at the same venue that was different in virtually every way. The two sides played scoreless hockey for more than 53 minutes before New York's Brock Nelson netted what would prove to be the only goal of the game in a 1-0 New York victory.
"I liked the way we managed the puck, I liked the way we controlled it in the offensive zone, I liked the way we defended," says New York coach Barry Trotz. "Washington doesn't need a lot of opportunities to capitalize; they've got some pretty dangerous shooters."
The Islanders' win leaves the Caps and Isles all even atop the East Division standings with 54 points each. Both teams have 17 games remaining in the regular season, including three more head-to-head meetings.
"It was one of those tight games, they got one by and we weren't able to," says Caps coach Peter Laviolette.
Both goaltenders were at the top of their respective games from the outset, and the teams in front of them defended well; there was little room to be had or found or created in the offensive zone, and second chances were tough to come by in front of both nets.
Nelson found himself in a good spot on one of those rare second opportunities at 13:05 of the third. From behind the Washington net, Nelson blunted an intended Zdeno Chara outlet feed, and the puck rolled out to Ryan Pulock at the right point. Pulock put a shot on net, and Vitek Vanecek made the stop. But the rebound came right to Nelson and he tucked it home to put the Isles on top.
"It was a nice play by [Pulock] to hold the line and create some offense there before they maybe got set up in the [defensive] zone," recounts Nelson. "[Josh Bailey] was occupying a guy in front, and I just had to be able to find a loose puck with some space and get it in. It was nice to get that one."
Former Caps goaltender Semyon Varlamov made 29 saves in earning his fourth shutout of the season and his first in 16 career appearances against his former employers, the team that drafted him in the first round (23rd overall) of the 2006 NHL Draft. Among Varlamov's biggest stops were a denial of Daniel Sprong from the slot late in the first, a stop on Carl Hagelin's rush try in the first minute of the third and a stop on Conor Sheary around the midpoint of the third.
"It was tight checking," says Caps defenseman Brenden Dillon. "As the game went on, both teams had some good chances, and there was great goaltending on both sides. Special teams were super important for both teams, and it comes down to a net front goal."
Vanecek made a desperate paddle save on Cal Clutterbuck early in the first, and an excellent lateral save on Mathew Barzal late in the contest while Washington was vying for the equalizer. Vanecek finished the night with 38 saves; he faced 20 of those shots in the final frame with seven of them coming after the Nelson goal.
"I thought he made some big saves," says Laviolette of his goaltender. "At the beginning there were a couple scrambles in the first three or four minutes when we gave them a couple of good opportunities, and he made some big saves. He certainly made some big saves off the rush. So yeah, he gave us an opportunity [to win]."
The shutout was the first the Caps have suffered this season in 39 games.
"I thought we managed it pretty good," says Trotz. "I didn't think that they had a lot of opportunities, but some that they did were pretty dangerous and Varly came up big. I thought their goaltender played extremely well. We had lots of chances to pull away and we didn't. It was a hell of a hockey game between two good teams."