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Caps get strong start and finish in win over Pens, both special teams deliver in clutch, stars say hot, much more

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps /

Finishing Touches - Successfully closing out contests has been a problem at times for the Capitals in the first third of this truncated and condensed 2020-21 campaign. Although the Caps have held a lead at some point in 17 of the 19 games they've played, they claimed 10 wins and earned points in 14 of those first 19 contests.

Despite losing hold of a 2-0 third-period lead on Thursday against the Penguins, the Caps rallied back to win 5-2, thanks to a clutch power-play goal from Tom Wilson and a pair of late empty-netters.

In addition to the strong finish, the Caps also put together a strong start in Thursday's game, their best in a while. More importantly, they managed to maintain that effort and level of play throughout the full 60 minutes.

"It was good," says Caps coach Peter Laviolette. "I think through the course of 82 games or a shortened season, there are always games where you wish you could redo an ending, or you wish you could redo a start. And when you're playing against [good] teams, it's difficult to control the entire 60 [minutes].

"Tonight, I thought we were pretty good from the start. And when [the score] comes back to 2-2, that's a chance to cave a little bit and I don't think we did. I think we kept pressing and stayed on it, and got a big power play goal and it was it was a nice response to what had happened. I thought we were in pretty good shape, but it's still 2-2 when you look up on the board and you do need a response, so I thought the guys did that well."

Video: Wilson's go-ahead goal lifts Capitals to victory

Special Delivery - Special teams have been a strong area of Washington's overall game this season. The Capitals' power play ranks third in the NHL with a success rate of 32% on the season, and the Washington penalty-killing outfit stands 16th in the circuit with a 79.7% kill rate, giving the Caps a strong special teams index (PP pct. plus PK pct.) of 111.7.

But in the shorter term, both units were scuffling a bit as Thursday night's game wore on. A second-period power play chance for the Caps produced not even a shot on net, the third straight such occurrence in two home games against the Penguins this week. And Washington's penalty-killing corps had been dented for a power-play goal against in four straight games and five out of six going into Thursday's contest.

And while the Caps' power play has been fairly lethal this season, it hasn't had a lot of success against the Penguins. After that second-period opportunity went by the wayside, Washington was sitting at 2-for-18 (11.1%) against the Pens this season, well below their rate against the rest of the East Division.

Including a 3-on-5 shorthanded goal against the Caps on Jan. 19 in Pittsburgh, the Pens had outscored Washington by combined 5-2 on special teams going into Thursday's game. Brandon Tanev's shorthanded goal in the third period of Thursday's game increased that special teams scoring differential between the two teams, cutting the Caps' lead to 2-1.

Three minutes later, Jake Guentzel scored to tie the game for the Penguins and suddenly momentum, the game and two important points were swinging in the balance.

"Today felt like a little bit of a reverse of what it felt like for us a couple days ago," says Caps right wing T.J. Oshie, referring to Tuesday's 3-2 overtime loss to the Penguins. '[In the Tuesday game] it felt like they were winning a lot of battles and we were getting outworked, and we had a terrible, terrible start, not only on the scoreboard last game but just in overall performance.

"Tonight, it felt like we went out there and tried to take it to them and whether we did a really good job with that or they didn't have their best start from the beginning of the game, I felt like we had momentum, even through our penalty kills. I feel like our penalty kill did great, and we still got momentum from that. We had a couple minute lull there, and they got a couple goals on us, but then we got it back quickly. All in all, I'm really happy with the way we played today and it felt good out there."

Short End Of The Stick - On Wilson's game-winning goal, the Caps were able to take advantage of Kris Letang's broken stick. The Pens defenseman was standing right next to Wilson when the Washington winger struck for the game-winner, but without a stick the blueliner was fairly helpless.

"For Tom to get his stick on that puck at an angle to get that puck up in the top corner was an elite play," says Oshie, who occupies that same diamond post on Washington's first power play unit. "It maybe doesn't look like much or it looks like a random deflection, but that takes a lot of skill.

Earlier in the game, Wilson found himself in the same situation, without his stick for the final 30 seconds or so of a Washington penalty kill.

"It kind of turns it into a 5-on-3 and a half, almost," says Oshie. "He can only cover a shot lane and a couple of feet down by his legs. Typically, you want to attack that guy - one way or another - and hope maybe starts running and gets out of position. I know it's hard when you don't have a stick not to just go and try to run and hit somebody, because you feel like that's all you can do. We got an odd man or outnumber situation in front of their net, and that's kind of what set up the goal before the pass got there."

Heat Wave - Oshie scored a dazzler of a goal early in the third, elevating the puck into the net with a desperate, one-handed reach off his backhand, giving him three goals in his last three games.

As Laviolette pointed out after the game, even when Oshie isn't finding the back of the net for a stretch of time, he still makes valuable contributions to the cause with his playmaking, his energy and his relentless battle and compete levels.

"The goal tonight was fun, and what an individual effort to make that happen," says the Caps bench boss of Oshie. "He's been good. I think he has been a consistent player for the entire year, and it's nice to see him get rewarded. But for me, that was a lot of individual effort and a really nice play to finish it off."

Oshie has five goals in 18 games this season, but his third-period tally against the Pens on Thursday was his first at even strength.

Video: Postgame | Peter Laviolette

The Stars Are Ours - Caps center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman John Carlson both continued their torrid offensive starts to the season.

Backstrom had a goal and an assist - his seventh multi-point game this season - and increased his team-leading point total to 24 (nine goals, 15 assists) on the season. Backstrom ranks seventh in the NHL in scoring and is now one assist shy of the 700 mark for his NHL career.

Carlson had a pair of helpers, including a tape-to-tape primary assist on Wilson's game-winner. With 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) on the season, he is second only to Backstrom in team scoring and ranks third among all NHL defensemen. Thursday marked Carlson's fifth multi-point game of the season.

Draw Man - Nic Dowd won six of eight draws in Thursday's game, including both defensive zone face-offs he took while Washington was shorthanded. Dowd has won 47 of his 75 total face-offs (62.7%) since Feb. 16, the third-highest face-off win percentage in the NHL among skaters with at least 75 total draws over that span.

By The Numbers - Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 22:34 … Nick Jensen and Zdeno Chara were penalty-killing workhorses for Washington, logging 6:16 each of the eight total minutes the Caps spent on the kill … Backstrom led the Caps with five shots on net and Alex Ovechkin led Washington with nine shot attempts … Brenden Dillon led the Caps with four hits … Lars Eller won 12 of 19 face-offs (63%).

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