WASHINGTON — Braden Holtby worried the Washington Capitals might come out flat against a last-place New Jersey Devils team that was missing several regulars, so he made sure he was on his game from the moment the puck was dropped.
He was right, and he was ready.
Holtby stopped 25 shots to help the slow-starting Capitals shut out the Devils 3-0 on Friday night for their sixth consecutive victory. It wasn't pretty, but it was good enough to put the defending Stanley Cup champions back in sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division.
"Playing a team like them with a ton of injuries, you don't really know," Holtby said. "I was just trying to be prepared thinking that might happen and be there (and) do my job."
Holtby did his job by robbing All-Star Kyle Palmieri in the first period and making a handful of other important saves in a game that shouldn't have been so close. With his 35th career shutout, Holtby tied Olie Kolzig for the most in franchise history.
Andre Burakovsky extended his goal streak to three games by finishing off a rush 2:40 in, and Nicklas Backstrom scored on the power play in the third period. Lars Eller sealed it with an empty-netter in the final minute of a game that was hardly a masterpiece with the puck bouncing all over bad ice and a playoff contender at times playing down to its competition.
"I feel like games like this are going to happen," Backstrom said. "Even if we didn't play our best, it's a good thing that we came out of it with two points. But we're a smart group in here. We realize we can play a lot better. We're going to take these two points and move forward."
There were some positives, such as a 6-for-6 showing on the penalty kill and scoring from the fourth line. But after the Capitals had just three shots to show for more than four minutes of power-play time in the first period, assistant coach Blaine Forsythe was sharply critical at the first intermission.
"We have every reason to be motivated given the standings," Forsythe said on the team's radio network. "That was garbage, that period, to be honest with you. We got outworked in every aspect of the game. That can't happen. We've got to be way better."
Washington took six minor penalties over the course of the game but got better as it went along.
"We progressed and figured out a way," defenceman John Carlson said. "They all count the same."
The same couldn't be said of the Devils, who lost their fifth in a row. Without last year's NHL MVP, Taylor Hall, and five other lineup mainstays, New Jersey went 0 for 6 on the power play to extend its drought to 0 for 24 over its past nine games.
Rookie goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood did his best to keep the Devils in the game by making 33 saves, and coach John Hynes was proud of his team's work ethic against long odds.
"I thought we had opportunities to score," Hynes said. "I thought we worked for them. I thought we had some Grade A chances. Unfortunately, the puck didn't go in for us, but you can't fault the effort."
NOTES: Palmieri returned after missing four games with a lower-body injury. ... Devils forward John Quenneville returned after missing four games with an upper-body injury. ... C Nico Hischier and F Jesper Bratt didn't make the trip after being injured Tuesday. ... Capitals D Brooks Orpik played his 40th game of the season and cashed in on a $250,000 contract incentive. .. A moment of silence was held before the game in honour of late Hockey Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay, who died earlier in the week.
Devils: Cory Schneider is expected to start in goal at the New York Rangers on Saturday.
Capitals: Look for their seventh consecutive victory when they host the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports