Two nights after suffering a second straight ugly loss on the road, the Caps came home and got their game right. Washington turned in a top-notch, 60-minute effort up and down its lineup, and the result was a 3-1 win over the Minnesota Wild, winners of four straight games coming into Friday night's contest at Capital One Arena.
After consecutive poor starts doomed the Capitals on a two-game Western road trip earlier in the week, they put together a much stronger first 20 minutes on Saturday against the Wild. In the aftermath of Thursday's 6-2 loss to the Avalanche in Denver, Caps coach Barry Trotz expressed multiple levels of disappointment in his team, and one area he pointed out was its battle level.
The Caps' battle level was noticeable again on Saturday, but in a good way.
Video: Kuznetsov, Holtby lead Capitals past Wild, 3-1
"Everybody was doing their job and making good decisions and battling," says Trotz. "When we break the game down to the smallest level, it is those puck races, it is those battles, those one-on-one battles to get possession of the puck, or to keep possession.
"When you're easy to check or it's easy to get to the front of your net, it's going to be an easy night for you. So you've got to make it hard on the opposition. I thought we made it hard on them."
That they did. The Caps were difficult to play against on Saturday, a claim they could not make in the two road games earlier in the week. The Capitals also did themselves a favor by grabbing an early lead. After chasing the game for 120 minutes on the road, the Caps did not trail on Saturday against Minnesota.
Video: Caps 365 | November 18
Just ahead of the midpoint of the first period, Caps winger T.J. Oshie drew a boarding call on Wild defenseman Kyle Quincey. Oshie then personally made the blueliner pay, converting a tic-tac-toe sequence from the diamond on the ensuing power play. Oshie's 10th goal of the season put the Caps up 1-0 at 9:42 of the first.
Less than three minutes later, the Wild squared the score with a power play goal of its own. Nino Neiderreiter scored at 12:02, putting home the rebound of a Mikko Koivu shot to make it a 1-1 game.
Washington has mounted some quick response goals this season, and it did so in the aftermath of the Neiderreiter goal, too. A mere 44 seconds after the Wild tied it up, the Caps regained the lead.
Oshie kept the puck alive in the left circle, pushing it to Matt Niskanen at the left point. Niskanen slid the puck across to partner Dmitry Orlov at the right point, and Orlov delivered a bomb to the far side of the cage for a 2-1 Washington lead at 12:46.
Jay Beagle's line came out after the Orlov goal and kept the hammer down in the attack zone, ensuring that the momentum would remain on the Washington side of the ice.
The Caps then killed off three straight penalties to maintain that one-goal cushion. Minnesota had three straight power plays over a span of just over 15 minutes, from late in the first to late in the third. With the lead hanging in the balance each time, the Caps completed three straight kills without incident.
Washington had a golden opportunity to add to its lead when it had a full two-minute power play on a fresh sheet of ice to start the third, but Wild goalie Alex Stalock - making his first start since Oct. 31 - kept the Caps at bay and kept his team in the game.
Video: Caps Postgame Locker Room | November 18
The Caps did not sit back with their slim one-goal lead in the third. The two sides traded some chances, and the two netminders kept the score right where it had been for the better part of the game.
With 4:49 left, Chandler Stephenson earned a penalty shot, but Stalock stopped him. But the Caps kept the heat on in the Minnesota end, and Lars Eller drew a double-minor for hi-sticking on Wild defenseman Ryan Suter with just 3:13 left.
Evgeny Kuznetsov converted an Alex Ovechkin feed on the front end of that power play, giving Washington a goal's worth of breathing room at 3-1 with just 2:37 left to play.
Both goaltenders were excellent throughout the game. Caps goaltender Braden Holtby prides himself on bounce-back games in the wake of bad beats, and this was one of those games. Four nights after surrendering a career high six goals to the Preds in Nashville - a game in which he was pulled after 40 minutes - Holtby responded with a 30-save effort to earn his 11th victory of the season, and his sixth in his last seven starts.
Making just his fourth start of the season, Stalock made 40 stops to keep his team within striking distance.
"It was a much better effort by the guys in front of our goaltenders tonight," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. "I thought defensively we just got in their way all over the ice. We were on top of people, and we made it hard on them to get any ice. Holts was good when they got some perimeter shots; he was there to make the saves through traffic. And getting two goals in the first [period], it's nice to play with a lead like that."
Washington's improvement was noticeable outside of the Capitals' room, too.
"They played a good game," says Wild coach Bruce Boudreau of the Capitals. "They shot everything; they kept us in our own end a lot, especially in the third period and they were shooting everything at the net. I thought they were a pretty determined team tonight."
Video: Barry Trotz Postgame | November 18
"Tonight was one that we deserved to win, plain and simple," says Trotz. "We battled in all the areas that we needed to battle, and we worked, and we didn't have any passengers. It feels a lot better; it just does. The guys know that, and I know that, and the fans know that."