- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2019

In an 82-game hockey season, tides shift. Moods change. Strengths can become weaknesses and weaknesses can become strengths.

The most recent instance of this for the Washington Capitals: They’ve won two of their last three games thanks to stellar defense — something that would have sounded laughable a mere two or three weeks ago.

“Hockey goes in cycles sometimes, and I think we’re doing a good job in front of our net right now about making clear lanes to see, taking away different options, limiting the options,” goaltender Braden Holtby said after Tuesday night’s win over the Vancouver Canucks. “I think it’s just one of those things. Sometimes it goes in cycles like that. You just try and analyze every game to see what you can do better and move forward.”

The Capitals lost their last seven games going into the NHL All-Star Break, and in four of those seven losses, they allowed six goals or more, making for one of the most porous defenses in hockey.

But in the three games since they’ve been back, they have only allowed five goals at 5-on-5, including just one each in the last two games. Even the game Washington lost, it only lost 1-0.

“I think we’ve done a better job of not giving up a ton of odd-man rushes,” coach Todd Reirden said Tuesday. “There still were some out there tonight, but that chance-for-chance (style of play) we talked about before the break has been much better post-break, so I think that’s allowed us to have more success defending.”

Holtby has stepped up, which accounts for a lot of the defensive success. He’s saved .941 of the shots he’s faced since the break; for four games before the break following an eye injury, that stat was a significantly worse .843.

Holtby, who famously prefers not to rest or take games off if he can help it, said he didn’t feel as though the All-Star Break changed anything for him.

“It’s just one of those things. Sometimes hockey changes,” he said. “The games are different. You try and analyze every play instead of a whole game. You make little adjustments throughout the year and just try and get better.”

The Capitals‘ blueliners also seem to have made some corrections. The pairing of Dmitry Orlov (minus-12 this year) and Matt Niskanen (minus-11), in particular, were having an underwhelming season, so much so that general manager Brian MacLellan mentioned to reporters Monday he was “a little disappointed” in them.

“I think they were our main pair last year, played great for us in the playoffs and I don’t think they’ve played at the standard that they’re used to playing at,” MacLellan said.

But the pairing has played more up to par recently, especially Orlov, who has tallied four takeaways and five blocked shots in the last three games.

What’s even better news for Washington’s blue line is the impending return of Christian Djoos from a thigh injury that’s kept him out since mid-December. Djoos was sent to the AHL Hershey Bears for a conditioning assignment; Reirden said Djoos would play for the Bears Sunday and Wednesday, then return to Washington.

If Djoos comes back later this week and the Capitals decide he’s ready to be activated from injured reserve, they’ll most likely have to send rookie defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler back to the minors for the time being. That isn’t ideal, because the Capitals have liked Siegenthaler enough to play him in most games since Djoos was hurt, ahead of Madison Bowey.

But Siegenthaler is the only waiver-exempt player the Capitals can move to the minors. If they tried to assign Bowey, for example, other NHL teams could choose to claim him off waivers first.

In the meantime, the Capitals‘ defense needs to be in top form Thursday when they host the Colorado Avalanche, who boast one of the most dangerous lines in hockey. Left wing Gabriel Landeskog has 29 goals to lead the team, right wing Mikko Rantanen is fourth in the NHL with 74 points (23 goals, 51 assists) and center Nathan MacKinnon, a finalist for league MVP last season, is sixth with 72 points (27 goals, 45 assists).

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