- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2018

Even teams that lead their division after 35 games can find ways to improve here and there. For the Washington Capitals, the power-play unit going 0-for-16 over four games was likely atop their list.

After that drought extended to 19 straight missed opportunities, the Capitals got back to their usual scoring ways on the man advantage. T.J. Oshie scored a power-play goal and the Capitals beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-1 Thursday at Capital One Arena.

Chandler Stephenson also scored, John Carlson had an assist and an empty-net goal and Braden Holtby saved 28 shots.

The Capitals executed a crucial penalty kill with less than four minutes left in the third, including Holtby knocking away a puck dangerously close to the goal line. The Hurricanes chose to add an extra skater to make it 6-on-4, but Washington stopped them nonetheless.

While Washington’s power play needed to snap an unfortunate streak Thursday, the penalty kill has now held opponents scoreless in three straight games.

“Just a little bit more video, a little bit more focus on it,” Stephenson said. “Just trying to simplify things, not handcuff yourself or try to do too much. It’s working right now, so we’re not changing too much, just sticking with what’s been working.”

Thursday was the NHL’s first night back in action after the Christmas break.

“There was a little bit of rust and that’s to be expected,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “I just felt like for us, that rest and those number of days we can have there is something we need to bank, and certainly when we’re planning the schedule we knew that we’d be able to get some extra rest there. Any rust or plays that weren’t perfect tonight were kind of expected, and my big thought process was to continue and move forward as the game went on and get better and better.”

The Capitals (23-10-3) topped their sixth-place division opponents in a far different type of game than their first meeting of the year — a 6-5 Washington win Dec. 14 in Carolina that was decided by a shootout.

The Capitals put 16 shots on goal and killed three penalties in a slow and scoreless first period. It wasn’t until the fourth minute of the second period that Stephenson got Washington on the board.

His goal was set up when fellow fourth-liners Devante Smith-Pelly and Travis Boyd forced the Hurricanes into making a bad pass in their defensive zone. Stephenson intercepted the puck and popped it in. He later said Smith-Pelly and Boyd ought to have earned assists for the play, though they didn’t technically touch the puck.

“Conno, Burky and Lars wore them down for us and Boyder and Devo were grinding them down too,” Stephenson said. “The puck gets popped into a spot, and it was kinda right place, right time.”

The Capitals failed to convert on their first three power plays of the evening, but fortunes changed when Carolina blueliner Brett Pesce was called for hooking late in the second. Alex Ovechkin passed to Carlson in plenty of space, and Carlson took a shot from the point. Oshie tapped it from his post in the slot and the puck hit the inside of the crossbar on its way over Mrazek’s shoulder.

“They seemed to start spreading out. They really wanted to take away (Ovechkin),” Oshie said. “They were sagging a little bit, giving John some space. We simplified a little bit. John made a great play, shot to an area where I could tip. You just try to get a stick on it.”

With about eight minutes left to play, Matt Niskanen was shoved in the corner by Carolina center Clark Bishop and took a nasty face-first trip into the boards. He needed team doctors’ assistance but skated out of the game on his own.

Reirden did not have an update on Niskanen’s condition immediately after the game.

Bishop wasn’t penalized, and less than a minute later Carolina scored. Holtby blocked a Micheal Ferland shot attempt, but Sebastian Aho handled the rebound for his team-best 15th goal of the year. But Washington’s team defense and special teams carried the team the rest of the way.

The Capitals are 15-3-0 in their last 18 games. They head to Ottawa to play the Senators Saturday before hosting the Nashville Predators in the District on New Year’s Eve.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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