WASHINGTON — Daniel Sprong scored 1:29 in for his third goal in two games, Vitek Vanecek made 18 saves and the Washington Capitals shut out the New York Islanders 1-0 on Tuesday night to win their first home game with fans this season and sweep a three-game series between the teams.
Sprong continues to make the most of his opportunity to fill in on the top line for captain Alex Ovechkin, who missed a second consecutive game with a lower-body injury. Despite playing again without Ovechkin and injured defenseman Justin Schultz, the Capitals leapfrogged Pittsburgh to move back into first place in the neck-and-neck East Division.
The Islanders have fallen to third after picking up one point out of a possible six in three games against Washington. They were shut out by a rookie goaltender for the second time in six games and third time overall in that span.
New York’s rookie goalie, Ilya Sorokin, made his biggest of 32 saves on a breakaway by Anthony Mantha early in the third period to keep the score close. Sorokin got the start after Semyon Varlamov was a surprise scratch on his 33rd birthday with Cory Schneider backing up.
After Sprong’s 10th goal of the season on the game’s first shot, there were more fists flying and shoves exchanged than quality scoring chances. Washington’s Zdeno Chara took exception to a hit from behind by Matt Martin on new teammate Michael Raffl and fought Martin to the delight of the 2,100 fans in attendance.
Raffl, who played his first home game since the Capitals acquired him at the trade deadline, hugged Chara when the 6-foot-9 defenseman was released from the penalty box.
FANS BACK IN WASHINGTON
The Capitals were the second-last American NHL team to get some fans back for home games, at 10% capacity. After 419 days since the last NHL game in Washington on March 4, 2020, the “Let’s go Caps!” chants began well before pregame warmups got underway.
Only Chicago is left playing in an empty arena among the 24 teams in the U.S., along with all seven in Canada.
Coach Barry Trotz promised “a change or two” to his lineup after consecutive losses to the Capitals and made a few. Josh Bailey earned a promotion to the top line alongside Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle, Oliver Wahlstrom replaced Michael Dal Colle among forwards and Braydon Coburn went in for Noah Dobson on defense.
“I’m just trying to try different combinations,” Trotz said. “It’s a little bit of a jigsaw puzzle right now. A Rubik’s Cube would probably be a better analogy to that than a puzzle. But yeah we’re just trying to get a little more production.”
BACK TO VANECEK
The Capitals went back to Vanecek in net despite Ilya Samsonov stopping 47 of 50 shots in consecutive victories at the Islanders. That’s a calculated move by the coaching staff as it evaluates who might be Washington’s Game 1 playoff starter.
“It’s important that we continue to play both goaltenders,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “I think the playoffs are probably built for multiple goalies in today’s game.”
Islanders: Visit the Rangers on Thursday in the opener of a home-and-home series between New York rivals.
Capitals: Host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday in the first of two in a row against them in Washington.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno