Caps goalie Braden Holtby has always taken a great deal of pride in rebounding from the occasional difficult outing. Twice this season, he has faced the Columbus Blue Jackets in an important game after one of those difficult outings, and twice he has bounced back strong by beating the Jackets.
Two nights after he was briefly pulled from a 6-3 loss to the Coyotes in Arizona, a game in which he surrendered six goals for the first time in more than four years, Holtby stopped 35 of 37 shots to help the Capitals to a 3-2 win over the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Sunday.
Video: Three-goal 2nd period leads Caps past Blue Jackets
With Sunday's win, Washington now holds a five-point lead over second-place Pittsburgh for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. Columbus lost its third game in a row for the first time this season, and the Jackets also fell from second to third place in the Metro standings.
For the Caps, it was a statement victory and a rebound victory. Knowing the Jackets had designs on wresting the Metro crown from them and coming off a listless 6-3 loss to the Coyotes in Arizona two nights earlier, the Caps stood up and took the two points.
"I was happy with the effort, no question," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "The first 30 minutes, I thought we were really good. The last 30 minutes, they had sections of the game where they had pushes on and they had us back up a little bit."
Video: Coach Trotz talks after a 3-2 win against the Jackets
The two teams played a scoreless but entertaining and physical first frame in which both sides mustered a few scoring chances, but both goalies were excellent. But early in the second, the Caps quickly and repeatedly found the range.
Just before taking a hit from Columbus' Brandon Dubinsky, Caps center Nicklas Backstrom made a long, cross-ice feed from his own end toward T.J. Oshie in neutral ice. Oshie chased the puck down near the right wing half wall in Columbus ice as two Blue Jackets chased Alex Ovechkin, who was barreling toward the net. Oshie curled toward the cage himself, carried to the slot and lifted a backhander that beat Blue Jackets' netminder Sergei Bobrovsky at 1:12 of the second period.
Video: WSH@CBJ: Oshie opens scoring with slick backhand
"I screamed at Nicky," recounts Oshie. "I noticed that [Jackets defenseman Zach] Werenski, maybe, or one of their [defensemen] got on the wrong side of me, and Nicky threw it over. [Ovechkin] obviously created the whole thing, taking two guys to the net with him. Obviously, with [Ovechkin] going down the middle everyone is going to take him.
"It opened up everything for me, and I found a hole inside of his blocker, which is a little lucky, but I got the puck there."
Just under two minutes later, the Caps doubled their lead. They did so off the rush, and with just three skaters on five in the zone (and only four on the ice), to boot. Kevin Shattenkirk started the play in Washington's end, feeding Lars Eller near the red line. Eller skated into Columbus ice and carried through some traffic, down low on the right side. Once he got below the goal line, Eller pivoted and put a pass right on Andre Burakovsky's tape. Burakovsky snapped a shot through a small opening on the short side to extend the Washington lead to 2-0 at 2:56 of the middle stanza.
Video: WSH@CBJ: Burakovsky roofs Eller's spinning feed
"I didn't even look," says Burakovsky. "I was more focused to get a shot off. I didn't look at the goal. Usually, when you're at that angle, that's the only room you're going to have, is above his shoulder. So I was just trying to get it up there."
Just after the midpoint of the middle period, the Caps netted what would prove to be an all-important third goal. On this one, the Capitals scored nine seconds after they were guilty of icing the puck.
Columbus center Alexander Wennberg beat Eller on the draw, winning the puck back to Jack Johnson at the left point. But Burakovsky picked off Johnson's backhand pass high in the Washington zone and took off toward Columbus ice with Johnson as the lone man back for the Jackets. Meanwhile, Matt Niskanen hurriedly joined the rush and vocally let Burakovsky know as much. Burakovsky led Niskanen just enough, and the latter beat Bobrovsky on the glove side to make it a 3-0 game at 10:05 of the second.
Video: WSH@CBJ: Nikskanen beats Bobrovsky on glove side
"I just heard Nisky screaming for the puck," says Burakovsky. "I looked up real quick and saw he was open, so I just tried to get it over to him."
Holtby stopped eight shots in the first and a dozen in the second, and Washington took its three-goal lead into the third.
Early in the final period, Werenski left the game after absorbing a hit from Caps' captain Alex Ovechkin. The Caps seemed to have the game well in hand until just before the midway point of the final period when Johnson got one back for Columbus.
After taking a feed from Wennberg, Johnson deftly skirted both John Carlson and Tom Wilson before beating Holtby on the far side at the 9:22 mark, making it a 3-1 game.
A few minutes later, a large-scale scuffle broke out in front of the benches, chiefly involving Ovechkin and Josh Anderson but with all skaters and even Bobrovsky hovering about the pile. A quintet of roughing minors was handed out resulting in a Washington power play, but the Caps weren't able to convert despite a couple good looks.
Columbus drew within a goal when Kyle Quincey's left point shot found its way through traffic and behind Holtby at 15:33, tightening the score to 3-2.
The Jackets managed five more shots on net afterwards, but only one from inside of 30 feet away, and Holtby set them aside. He also failed to rattle when Jackets captain Nick Foligno stripped him of his mask during a netmouth scramble with 20.1 seconds remaining.
Video: Caps players talk after a 3-2 win against Columbus
"They've done it in years past," shrugs Holtby of the rough stuff in the crease late in the third. "They always stick you and stuff behind the play. You've just got to be ready for it. But there comes a point where - with the puck on the line - you stand up for yourself. The refs take more notice when you do that."
Back on Jan. 3, Holtby was pulled after allowing three goals on just eight shots in a start against Toronto. Two nights later, he shutout the Jackets on 29 shots in a game at Verizon Center, a victory that ended the Jackets' 16-game winning streak, one shy of matching the NHL record.
"Holts is a real good pro," says Trotz. "I thought in the last 10 minutes of the second he made some real key saves and made them look real easy."