On February 1, the Western Conference’s leading Stanley Cup hopefuls, the Calgary Flames, met the reigning champions, the Washington Capitals, at the Capital One Arena.
For both the traveling Flames and the hosting Capitals, this was the first game since the All-Star break. The Caps came into the matchup on a major skid of seven losses – one coming in overtime – while the Flames were flying high atop the Western Conference having entered the break with a three-game winning streak. It was even worse for the Capitals, however, as they would be without their star and captain Alex Ovechkin for only the 30th game of his career due to being given a one-game suspension for missing the All-Star weekend.
The home team would earn an early lead in this match, with the Capitals’ pressure in the offensive end proving to be too much for the Flames. As Calgary tried to get it out, Michal Kempny collected the puck and smoothly shifted it over to John Carlson along the blueline. Carlson fired towards the goal, but Nic Dowd came across the slot to bunt the puck down and score his fifth goal of the season.
Towards the end of the first period, Mikael Backlund found himself muscling through the neutral zone and with the puck on his stick on the other side. Bearing down on goal, Backlund feinted a deke, to which Braden Holtby committed to stopping, only to leave the puck on his backhand to let float into the net. With a little over 30 seconds left before the first buzzer, Brooks Orpik’s drive from the blueline fell in front of the net. Lars Eller had the first attempt to push it past Mike Smith, but it was Dmitrij Jaskin’s flick which ended up putting Washington 2-1 up at the break.
Calgary was caught out very early in the second period, putting it in a two-goal hole. As Matthew Tkachuk looked to leave the Flames’ end with the puck, Evgeny Kuznetsov masterfully poked the puck away and to Jakub Vrana. The Czech wing saw Tom Wilson find some space, passed him the puck, and watched as Washington’s resident brute flung the puck beyond Smith at the far side. Little over one minute later, the Flames answered back via T.J. Brodie’s double-deflected shot, which tapped Derek Ryan and Garnet Hathaway before squeaking past the goalie.
The Capitals did well to frustrate the Flames in the third period, but giving Johnny Gaudreau time and space with the puck on his stick is always a dangerous way to play. At the 12-minute mark, Gaudreau was allowed to take and hold the puck in the high slot, where he cranked up a huge slap shot which found the back of the net via the deflection off of Elias Lindholm’s stick.
Washington found itself on the powerplay for the final two minutes of the game, but its units had failed to capitalize on three other occasions in the game. With 57 seconds left on the clock, Kuznetsov floated into the offensive end and sent a lightning bolt of a wrist shot over Smith’s shoulder at the near side, sealing the win for the home team.
The game didn’t quite finish at the final buzzer, however, with a delayed hit from Nicklas Backstrom on Gaudreau causing a post-game scrum. Tkachuk dug into Orpik, Giordano had words with Holtby, and Wilson took to pummelling rookie Rasmus Andersson.
Reaction and odds movement
Not only did the Washington Capitals get the win without Alex Ovechkin, but they were also a man down for much of the game, with Lars Eller succumbing to a lower-body injury having skated for a total of six minutes. They found scoring from all areas in a close game, showing that their luck may be turning around after a much-needed break.
Only a couple of wins away from the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, the Caps have snapped their seven-game losing streak to move to +700 to win the Eastern Conference including the playoffs as well as +250 to take their division’s crown.
Calgary didn’t play as well offensively as they usually do, with scrappy goals being their primary source of scoring rather than perfectly telegraphed passing maneuvers resulting in sheet-busting score lines. But, this loss will likely be little more than the side shaking off some rust before pushing on to battle for the Western Conference crown. Still sitting atop the conference in the standings, the Flames are still heavily favored at +225 to win the conference in the playoffs and are seen as near certainties to take the Pacific Division at -167.
With Ovechkin back in their next contest, the Capitals can jumpstart their season to battle for Eastern Conference supremacy once again. The Flames will learn from this defeat and will likely come back stronger to continue their run for the Stanley Cup Finals.