They still have to wait 24 more days before their first chance at the defending champs, but the Washington Capitals have made their case for being the best team in the Eastern Conference - at least for this week.
Three days after dispatching the Northeast Division-leading Buffalo Sabres, the Caps throttled the team atop the Atlantic Division, the New Jersey Devils, 4-1 on Saturday night at Verizon Center behind three-point nights from Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.
“I think we’ve had a strong week,” forward Mike Knuble said. “Especially around the holidays, it is tough. I think we’ve had an advantage playing at home. I don’t know how much you want to read into it, but we just want to hold our end of the bargain at home.”
Washington won for the third straight game with its third-string goalie in net. Rookie Michal Neuvirth made 29 saves, but the Caps put forth an offensive assault that even one of the greatest goalies in NHL history was powerless to prevent.
Just as Neuvirth did in his first NHL start last season, he made a flashy glove save in the opening moments that helped him settle in for the evening.
“I am feeling unbelievable right now,” Neuvirth said. “I just beat the best goalie in the world, so it is amazing.”
The Caps nudged ahead of the Devils for the top spot in the NHL with 54 points. New Jersey defeated Washington in the first three meetings of the season and still has two games in hand on the Caps, but the home team dominated this contest almost from the outset.
Ovechkin put the Caps out in front with a wicked wrist shot at 4:09 of the opening period. Backstrom won a faceoff to the right of New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur back to Ovechkin, and the netminder never saw the shot through traffic.
It was Ovechkin’s 25th tally of the season, which is one behind the New York Rangers’ Marian Gaborik for the league lead. Ovechkin also notched the first marker in a contest for the ninth time this season, the most in the NHL.
The assist for Backstrom was also his 200th career point in 202 games. Backstrom became one of 11 players with 200 points since the start of the 2007-08 season.
“They’re all elite players,” coach Bruce Boudreau said of his top line. “They’re as good as there is in the league as far as ability, and they’re probably as scary a line as you can put on the ice in this league.”
Matt Bradley made it a 2-0 advantage. Bradley’s stick was disturbed by defenseman Mike Mottau. The result was a knuckling puck that would have traveled over the crossbar, but Brodeur tried to nab it with his glove and ended up deflecting it into his own net at 13:54.
Backstrom collected point No. 201 midway through the second period to restore the two-goal lead after a Rod Pelley tally late in the first. Alexander Semin tapped the puck to Backstrom at the inside of the left circle, and the Swedish center roofed a backhanded shot for his 15th goal at 9:52.
Mike Green pushed the lead to three goals early in the final period. He snapped a shot from just inside the top of the right circle into the top right corner for his eighth of the season and fifth in 10 games.
“In the first six minutes I was going, ‘Whoa, you can’t make a mistake at all against them,’ because they’re so fast and they move the puck and they work so hard,” Boudreau said. “I thought after that we played pretty much a complete game.”
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