Alex Ovechkin wasn’t taking the bait. Boston Bruins center Trent Frederic quickly dropped his gloves when he and the Washington Capitals star got tangled up near the goalmouth Wednesday night, but Ovechkin declined the invitation for a scrap.
Later, though, when Frederic pestered Ovechkin some more, the Russian gave the 23-year-old a not-so-subtle reminder to not mess with him: a stick jab between the legs that prompted a $5,000 fine. Both players wound up in the penalty box — but only one landed on the ice.
For all the attacking threat the Capitals possess, the sequence showed what could be the most promising sign yet for Washington. In a physical game with crunching hits at each turn, Capitals coach Peter Laviolette’s team displayed their ability to match that intensity.
With a standout defensive effort — holding Boston to just 19 shots — the Capitals laid a blueprint for what can bring success moving forward, beginning with Friday’s rematch against the Bruins.
“We know black and white what makes us successful, and I think Lavy has laid that out for us from Day 1,” Capitals defenseman Brenden Dillon said. “With the amount of skill we have and the offensive firepower we have, sometimes we can get away from that. But when we pay attention to the little things and we play well defensively, whether that’s blocking shots or just defending hard, we tend to get more offense out of that.”
Washington sits atop the East Division, riding a four-game winning streak and a 10-game spell that shows where the team has grown most midway through the campaign. Early in the season, when up-and-down results defined the Capitals, defensive lapses were the most obvious malady.
But Washington played a portion of those early games without key players, such as Ovechkin, defenseman Dmitry Orlov, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and goaltender Ilya Samsonov. Those four players were placed on the coronavirus protocol list — and Kuznetsov and Samsonov missed nearly three weeks — but they’re all back now.
And with a full squad once again, the improvement has been noticeable. Dillon called the defensive performance in Wednesday’s 2-1 shootout win the best of the season. But Laviolette pointed to a larger sample size.
In the last 10 games — seven of which were wins — the Capitals have allowed more than 30 shots just once. They’ve allowed 2.5 goals per game in that stretch and 26.7 shots per contest, the second-best mark in the league. The 19 attempts allowed Wednesday against Boston were the fewest conceded this season, a credit to their defense but also offensive zone possession, winger T.J. Oshie said.
“I think that we’ve been doing the right things defensively and I think the guys just are feeling a little bit more comfortable with what we’re doing,” Laviolette said, who won his 650th career game Wednesday. “We’ve got our group back, we’ve played together a little bit now and, I’ve mentioned it a couple times, it was just a rocky start. That’s all. We didn’t have everybody, and then we’re past that and I think we’re feeling a little better about what we’re doing on the ice.”
Earlier in the campaign, Washington managed to find wins on the back of its offensive output. But allowing a steady stream of 30-plus shots per game, including a season-high 48 against the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 24, wasn’t conducive to long-term success.
Wednesday won’t be the last physical game the Capitals will play this season. Kuznetsov said it felt like a playoff atmosphere two months before those knock-out contests begin. Should Washington continue its strong defensive base, the team should be playing hockey into the summer.
“We had good sticks, we were blocking shots, we were doing the little things that are going to make us successful in playoff hockey,” Dillon said. “For us to get the results from us working hard and playing the right way, it definitely bodes well.”
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