WINNIPEG – The Washington Capitals need to establish a road presence if they are to have any presence in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and they got an early start for March against the Winnipeg Jets.
Starting the day in last place in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals scored a 3-0 win against the Jets Saturday afternoon at MTS Centre. Washington's Matt Hendricks scored midway through the second period to establish a 1-0 lead that the Capitals (8-11-1) nursed into the intermission before Troy Brouwer and Mike Ribeiro posted insurance goals in the opening 4:16 of the third period.
The Capitals' busy month began with them badly needing to remedy their road problems. Washington plays 16 games -- eight of them away from Verizon Center -- in 31 days in March, and the Capitals began the afternoon having won only two of their first nine road games. Washington's brief two-game road journey began earlier this week with a lethargic 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers that brought down heavy criticism upon a team scuffling to establish any semblance of confidence this season.
"It was obviously good to bounce back, playing a team that has been hot and in a tough barn," Capitals coach Adam Oates said of facing an opponent that had scored first in each of its seven previous games. "The guys came out and handled the pressure early. I thought that we did a really good job with that."
Washington's best route to the postseason may be via taking the Southeast Division, so a strong effort against a divisional opponent was crucial.
"That was definitely one of our topics," Hendricks said. "I think we played a great team game. Division games, we talked about that before the game, and the importance of these points. I'm happy for everybody. It was a great game. [Holtby] played great."
Braden Holtby made his ninth consecutive start and stopped all 35 shots he faced, rebounding from the loss to the Flyers in which he was pulled after surrendering four goals.
Hendricks earned a spot on the Capitals' top line with Ribeiro and Alexander Ovechkin, and a Hendricks-Ribeiro connection helped Washington scored first for the 12th time in the team's first 20 games. Ribeiro directed a pass from the bottom of the right circle toward Ondrej Pavelec that Hendricks tipped for his fourth goal of the season high over the goaltender's left shoulder at 10:56.
Brouwer built upon Washington's lead early in the final period. Nicklas Backstrom worked the puck back off an offensive-zone right-circle draw to Brouwer, who snapped his ninth goal through slot traffic. Ribeiro followed up 1:12 later, scooping up Ovechkin's rebound and flicking his seventh goal over Pavelec.
Winnipeg outshot the Capitals 15-5 in the first period and 16-3 in the final period, but Holtby attributed that to his club adhering to its defensive system. Washington's passive system surrendered the perimeter and forced long-range shooting options on the Jets, who struggled all afternoon to break into high-percentage areas of the ice.
"That's the way the system is supposed to be played," Holtby said. "There might be high shot totals ... but it's a lot of perimeter stuff. You can see that it frustrated them, and that's what led to the second period when they started turning the puck over."
"If [the Jets] get the puck back to the point," Oates said, "and we're doing a good job in front, Braden sees it all the way, and that's not really a threatening shot in this League."
Washington's win stopped some of Winnipeg's recent momentum and halted its bid to establish a stronger home-ice presence. The Jets' 5-1-0 run entering the game set up the club for a four-game road trip that begins Tuesday evening against the Florida Panthers. Winnipeg (10-10-1) is now just 4-6-0 at home this season and has dropped five of its past six home dates.
Pavelec started his ninth straight game for the Jets and stopped 18 shots. Pavelec, who struggled earlier in the season, continued to round his game into form. Washington tested Pavelec several times during a second period in which they outshot the Jets 13-4. The 25-year-old netminder made a big stop on a long shot from former Jet Eric Fehr, and followed up that save by gloving Jason Chimera's in-close bid set up by a Winnipeg defensive breakdown.
"In my mind, it's a game we definitely should have won," Winnipeg's Evander Kane said. "We had a good opportunity to win both here at home. I think early on in the game we outshot them in the first period, played a real good first period, [and] we weren't able to get a goal. I think when you're the home team, you don't want to let a road team off the hook."
But Jets coach Claude Noel liked his club's game.
"I thought the will of our team was excellent," Noel said. "I thought that we played to win. I thought we worked hard. I thought we followed the game plan. We got a little away from it in the second [period]. I wouldn't fault our players."
However, the Jets' special-teams play continues to hamper their hopes at building sustained momentum. Despite 11 shots on the man-advantage, an 0-for-3 afternoon left Winnipeg in a 1-for-32 drought that has stretched 12 games. Winnipeg's penalty kill remains buried 30th in the National Hockey League as well.
"We probably could have used one on the power play," Noel acknowledged. "The power play will probably be a topic because [the media] can't think past the stats. I thought that our power play was better than it has been."
"You have to look at different things on the power play," Noel continued. "The numbers aren't great, and they haven't been great. We've been winning in spite of it. We knew that this could happen. We just know that. It's got to come around, and we know that, too. It's not like we're not trying."
If the Jets fail to correct their power play, however, Noel admitted that it could prove harmful to his club in the long term.
"Let's put it this way -- we're well aware of it," Noel added. "We're trying to get it changed. It's just that you hate to make such a big focus on it. There are other parts of our game that allow us to win. We've been able to do that. What will happen is that [we] won't be able to get away with it anymore if [we] don't start getting it going, and that's clear."
Winnipeg's injury problems also persist. Anthony Peluso departed the game after a first-period fight with Washington's Aaron Volpatti, an addition to Washington's lineup via waivers Thursday from the Vancouver Canucks. Peluso's return is not imminent, according to Noel.
In the second period, John Erskine's hard point shot struck Blake Wheeler's right foot and left him crumpled on the ice moments before Hendricks scored. Wheeler missed a shift, but did return to action. Afterward, Noel reported that Wheeler may have suffered a bone contusion.