For the fifth time this season and the second time in the last 11 nights, the Caps and the Columbus Blue Jackets squared off in Ohio's capital city on Sunday night.
For the Caps, it was an opportunity to assert their hold on the top spot in the Metropolitan Division with a week remaining in the season and a chance to atone for a less-than-stellar performance on Friday in Arizona. For the Jackets, it was one last shot at trying to wrest the Caps from the top spot in the Division and the Eastern Conference, and Columbus was also seeking to avoid its first three-game losing streak of the season.
Video: Three-goal 2nd period leads Caps past Blue Jackets
It was the most entertaining of the games played between the two teams this season - both sides were surly and cantankerous at times - and the outcome was in doubt until the final horn. In the end, the Caps came away with a 3-2 win over Columbus, a win that cements Washington's hold on the top spot in the Metro and drops the Jackets into third place, a point behind the second-place Pittsburgh Penguins.
After a scoreless first, the Caps roared to a 3-0 lead in the first 10 minutes of the middle period. Columbus mustered a spirited comeback with two goals in the third, as the Capitals bent a bit but did not break. Tempers flared frequently, some blood was shed and Washington was able to shelve any hopes Columbus had of making a late charge for top spot in the Metro.
Video: Coach Trotz talks after a 3-2 win against the Jackets
"I wasn't sure what to expect," says Caps coach Barry Trotz, "if they were going to try to come after us, or if they were going to lock it down.
"We just played. We played, and made sure we managed the puck really well, and I thought we did that. In the first period, we had a number of chances, and in the second we capitalized on a number of their mistakes."
Columbus had two cracks at the Caps in the span of 11 nights - one in each team's building - but managed to pick up just one of a possible four points in the two games. Sunday's loss leaves the Jackets with a 2-3-2 record in their last seven games, a stretch in which they've scored just 11 goals. Columbus now faces the specter of opening on the road to start the playoffs unless it is able to overtake Pittsburgh for the second spot in the division. The Jackets visit the Pens on Tuesday.
Video: WSH@CBJ: Holtby denies Jones' drive off the faceoff
Bounceback Game - Caps goalie Braden Holtby turned in another of his signature bounceback games on Sunday in Columbus. Two nights after allowing six goals for the first time in more than four years and being briefly pulled against Arizona, Holtby stopped 35 of 37 shots against Columbus and earned his 41st win of the season.
The Jackets apparently tried to go to school on Holtby's performance in Arizona when he allowed six goals - most of them on high shots - in 25 shots to the Coyotes.
"You knew they watched the tape from last game," says Holtby. "Everyone was going high for a while. You knew that was coming, and the guys did a good job there in front."
Over the last three seasons, Holtby has been strong in games immediately following those in which he has been pulled. He is 11-2-0 with two shutouts, a 2.21 GAA and a .925 save pct. in those follow-up contests.
On Jan. 5 of this season, Holtby blanked Columbus in Washington to halt the Jackets' 16-game winning streak. That start followed one in which he was pulled after permitted three goals on eight shots in a game against Toronto.
Video: Caps players talk after a 3-2 win against Columbus
Screaming Leads to Scoring - Two of the Caps' three goals in Sunday's game came as a result of the eventual goal scorer loudly verbalizing his presence and demanding the puck, followed by the puck carrier making a great play to get it to him.
On Washington's first goal, T.J. Oshie got a step on rookie Jackets' defenseman Zach Werenski and then Oshie "screamed at Nicky [Backstrom]" to let him know as much. Backstrom lofted a go-ahead pass for Oshie who then retrieved it and used Alex Ovechkin as a decoy while neatly tucking a backhander past Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
Washington's third goal came after Andre Burakovsky busted up a play high in the Capitals' zone and took off for Columbus ice. Matt Niskanen quickly jumped up from behind to join the rush.
"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."
Burakovsky did so perfectly, and Niskanen finished for what would prove to be the game-winning goal.
Video: WSH@CBJ: Niskanen beats Bobrovsky on glove side
Making Them Matter - Niskanen has scored 10 goals over the last two seasons, and half of them have been game-winners. He netted three game-winners for Washington last season, and his Dec. 13 goal against the New York Islanders in Brooklyn was his other game-winner this season.
Sixty-Five Strikes - Burakovsky scored his first goal since Feb. 4 and added an assist on Niskanen's goal to record his eighth multi-point game of the season and his first since Jan. 26.
"It was kind of nice to get a goal again, to get that feeling now that we're closer to the playoffs," says Burakovsky. "It was a bounceback for me today, coming off last game [in Arizona]. It was good."
Burakovsky is producing at a rate of .57 points per game this season, up from .48 in 2015-16.
Down On The Farm - While the Capitals were tightening their hold on a desirable postseason seeding, the AHL Hershey Bears were losing their grip on the last seeding available to them.
Hershey lost for the third time in as many nights on the weekend, dropping a 4-2 decision to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Sunday at Giant Center. After falling down 2-0 in the first, the Bears rallied to pull even in the second on goals from Nathan Walker (his 11th) and Jakub Vrana (his 16th). But Hershey was never able to get a lead, and it fell short as ex-Bear Chris Conner notched a hat trick for Lehigh Valley.
Pheonix Copley made 30 saves in a losing effort for the Bears, who are now one point behind fourth-place Bridgeport for the final Atlantic Division playoff berth. The Sound Tigers also hold a game in hand on the Bears, who have just five games remaining in their season.
Hershey is idle until Wednesday when it travels to Lehigh Valley for a rematch with the Phantoms.
Down a level, the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays earned a 3-2 overtime win over the Orlando Solar Bears on Sunday at North Charleston Coliseum.
Joe Devin netted the game-winner for the Stingrays at 2:57 of the extra session, making a winner of Parker Milner (37 saves) in the South Carolina nets. Kevin Dufour and Marcus Perrier also scored for the Stingrays.
By The Numbers - John Carlson led the Caps with 23:41 in ice time and four blocked shots … Niskanen led Washington with four shots on net and seven shot attempts … Evgeny Kuznetsov led the Caps with five hits … Kuznetsov won nine of 12 draws (75%), Backstrom won 11 of 17 (65%) and Jay Beagle won 10 of 16 (63%).