Coming into Thursday night's game at Verizon Center, many of the eyes and much of the attention of the hockey world were on the Columbus Blue Jackets, and rightfully so. The generationally hot Jackets rolled into town carrying a 16-game winning streak, and seeking to match the NHL's all-time record winning streak at the Capitals' expense.
By night's end, the Caps had diverted some of those eyes and that attention. Washington put together a stout 19-man performance, resulting in a 5-0 Capitals win and the end of the Jackets' remarkable winning run.
Video: Caps rout Blue Jackets to end 16-game winning streak
Two nights after he allowed three goals on eight shots in the first period of a game against Toronto and was pulled in favor of Philipp Grubauer, Caps goalie Braden Holtby stopped all 29 Columbus shots to earn his fourth shutout of the season and his third in his last 10 starts.
"I just addressed the team," says Jackets coach John Tortorella. "I usually don't go in the room, win or lose. I don't know how long since I've been in there. But I'd be remiss if I didn't. That is one hell of a run by a hockey team. They should feel real good about it.
"Honestly, I thought the first 30 minutes, we were a good hockey club. We played well. We couldn't find a way on Holtby. He made some great saves at key times, and then we kind of lost ourselves. I'm proud of the team. We're a good hockey team. They'll get a day off [Friday], and we'll get back to whacking at it against New York [Saturday]."
Tortorella's coaching counterpart was also impressed.
"I just want to say to Columbus too, that's very impressive, the streak," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "In this league, to do what they just did is very, very impressive. There are a lot of positives from their whole group. In this day and age, that's very impressive."
Washington wore the Jackets down with a combination of key stops from Holtby and some opportunistic goals. Columbus couldn't quite manage to get anything started offensively, anything that could spark them to a 17th straight win.
Video: Caps players talk #CapsJackets, ending the streak
"I wanted to stop the streak," admits Caps right wing Justin Williams. "Who wouldn't want to stop a streak? I'd be lying if I said I want thinking about it, for sure. We played, and played a good game."
While the Jackets were steamrolling the league's competition for the better part of a month and a half, the Capitals were quietly ramping up their collective game and putting together an enviable stretch of their own. With Thursday's win, the Caps are now 11-2-2 in their last 15 games, and they've averaged 3.4 goals for and just 1.87 goals against during that span.
Those numbers aren't quite up to the 3.88 goals per game and 1.69 goals against the Jackets posted during the life of their spree, but they'll do.
After dodging an early bullet when the Jackets' Brandon Saad missed the net on a rebound opportunity during the first shift of the game, the Caps took an early 1-0 lead on a hard working shift from the fourth line.
Nate Schmidt's shot from the right point was blunted en route to the net, and Jay Beagle was parked at the top of the paint so he attempted to jam it home, but was stopped by Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Daniel Winnik swooped in to collect the rebound, and Winnik went top shelf for a 1-0 Washington lead at 5:06 of the first.
Just after the midpoint of the first, the Caps doubled their advantage on a rush goal. Evgeny Kuznetsov gained the Columbus zone on the left side of the ice, leaving a drop pass for Marcus Johansson. Johansson threaded a feed to John Carlson who was driving the net in line with the right post, and the Caps defenseman was able to angle the puck past Bobrovsky with his skate blade at 11:32.
Although the Caps came out of the first with a 2-0 lead, the Jackets had the advantage in offensive-zone time and puck possession for the first 20 minutes.
Early in the second, Columbus again came with a good push. But Holtby made some clutch saves early, and Matt Niskanen made a great play to get a stick on Boone Jenner's shot from the slot on a Columbus power play, denying a virtually certain goal that would have halved the Washington lead before the game was halfway over.
About a minute and a half after the Caps navigated their way through that penalty kill, they added to their lead.
Nicklas Backstrom's line turned in a strong forechecking shift gaining control of the puck behind the Columbus net. Alex Ovechkin fed Nate Schmidt in the high slot, and Bobrovsky made the stop. But Schmidt corralled his own rebound and fired it past the goaltender, high on the glove side, for a 3-0 Washington lead at 7:28 of the second.
The Caps kept the heat on and made it a 4-0 game before the end of the second period, getting that fourth goal from the fourth different line. Lars Eller's trio put together a sustained offensive zone shift, but when the Jackets' Brandon Dubinsky was finally able to gain control, he promptly put it right on Carlson's stick. Carlson quickly fed Andre Burakovsky, who fired it home to make it a 4-0 game with 3:33 left in the middle frame.
Early in the third, Williams put a fitting coda on the contest with a short side snipe that sent Bobrovsky to the showers at 5:36 of the third.
From there, the only drama revolved around whether Holtby would finish off his fourth shutout of the season. He did, but only after the Caps successfully snuffed out three Columbus power plays in the third period.
Video: Coach Trotz on the 5-0 victory over Columbus
"Everybody shared in the victory," says Trotz. "Everyone did something that changed the game or had a real positive effect on the game. We went into the game and wanted to shut down their big line, and we did that. We wanted to stay out of the box; we sort of did that, but our penalty kill did a real good job. And I thought we managed the puck well. I thought it was a real good team effort."
It took all of that to end a streak that started back on Nov. 29, and to hand Columbus just its sixth regulation setback in 37 games this season.
"Listen, we got some big goals and some big saves," says Williams. "Was it a 5-0 game? No, I don't think so. But we turned into 5-0 with some timely goaltending and some timely goals."
That they did. And now Washington is the owner of a more modest four-game winning streak, a run they'll try to stretch to five on Saturday against the Senators in Ottawa.