Heading into the final 23 games of the 2013-14 regular season, the Washington Capitals are faced with the most difficult schedule of any team in the league. The Caps’ slate from here on out is packed with playoff locks and hopefuls, and only two of Washington’s final 23 tilts come against one of the five clubs who have already been relegated to also-ran status.
One of those two games came in Washington’s first game back after the Olympic break, a Thursday night date with the Panthers in South Florida. In what amounted to a must-win game for the Capitals, the plucky Panthers twice rebounded from two-goal deficits to tie the score, but Washington prevailed in the end. The Caps came away with a 5-4 decision and two key standings points.
“I think no matter how pretty or terrible it was,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson, “for this team right now it’s what we needed is a win. Now we can certainly realize what needs to change going forward. But obviously those two points are huge, it doesn’t matter how you get them.”
Washington earned the game’s first power play chance at 4:56 of the first when former Capital Tomas Fleischmann was busted for tripping. Just over a minute later, the Caps took advantage of that extra-man opportunity.
Panthers goaltender Tim Thomas stopped John Carlson’s shot from center point, but Brooks Laich nudged the rebound to Troy Brouwer, who backhanded it home to put the Caps up top at 1-0.
Just over two minutes later, the Caps doubled their advantage. Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov made a good read to pick off a long pass from Florida defenseman Brian Campbell in neutral ice. Orlov fed Alex Ovechkin along the left wing wall, and the Caps’ captain gained the zone and set Laich up for a one-timer from the slot. Laich’s shot eluded Thomas’ glove hand to make it a 2-0 game at 8:10 of the first.
The Caps dominated the first half of the frame, but Florida turned the tide late. In the last eight minutes of the first period, the Panthers mustered nine of the game’s 10 shot attempts. They scored at 15:27 when Fleischmann notched his sixth of the season, and the Caps were somewhat fortunate to get to the room with a 2-1 lead after the first 20 minutes of play.
Washington’s lead evaporated in the first minute of the second period. Brad Boyes was in the right place at the right time for the Panthers, and he was able to easily backhand the rebound of a Sean Bergenheim shot past Caps goalie Braden Holtby to make it a 2-2 game just 40 seconds into the middle stanza.
The Capitals regained the lead at 3-2 just over three minutes later when Carlson intercepted a backhand pass from Jimmy Hayes on the Florida side of neutral ice. Martin Erat carried in for Washington, and his centering feed was broken up. But it bounded right to center Nicklas Backstrom, who netted it for his 12th goal of the season at 3:44.
Washington restored its two-goal advantage on its second power play of the night in the final minute of the second period. Thomas stopped Ovechkin’s blast from the left dot, but Brouwer was able to locate the rebound in the paint and chip it behind the veteran goaltender to make it a 4-2 game.
Two-goal leads have proven problematic for the Capitals over the last few months, and the 19-day Olympic break did nothing to change that. Washington started the third period well enough, but soon fell into some serious penalty trouble, starting at 6:19 of the third when Holtby’s clearing attempt failed to catch the glass and sailed into the stands for a delay of game penalty. The Caps were 18 seconds shy of killing off that infraction when Florida’s Drew Shore scored on a shot from the left point to make it a 4-3 game.
Sixty-two seconds later, the Panthers tied it. A defensive lapse in the Washington zone resulted in a 3-on-1 down low for the Cats, and Boyes banged home a rebound to make it a 4-4 game with 10:37 remaining.
The Caps continued their third-period parade to the penalty box; Tom Wilson went off for slashing at 10:15 and Mike Green for boarding at 13:18. Washington killed those off, and Green nearly put the Caps back on top when he exited the box and found himself on a breakaway. Thomas fell down on his backside, but Green’s shot landed in the one small area of the net that the prone Panthers’ goalie was able to cover with his catching glove.
“Yeah, I thought that was our opportunity,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “But hey, it goes to show you it’s never in until it actually goes in. Sometimes it’s like shooting on the empty net; sometimes it’s hard because you’re supposed to score. The goalie usually doesn’t fall down in front of you on a breakaway.”
Undaunted by that misfortune, the Capitals rallied once again to take the lead for the third and final time. Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov’s exit pass was intercepted by Backstrom along the right wing wall near the Florida blueline. Backstrom deftly dished the disc down the wall to Laich, creating a 2-on-1 down low. Laich found Ovechkin and neatly set him up for a one-timer blast from the left dot that resulted in what proved to be the game-winning goal.
“He’s a game-breaker, we know that,” says Laich of Ovechkin. “We were pretty excited to see him put that one in the net, for sure.”
Washington had to kill off one more minor penalty – a tripping call on Joel Ward in the final minute – in order to seal the deal.
Over the final 14 minutes of the game, Florida teed up 25 of the 30 shot attempts that occurred in the contest.
“I thought we were going great until Holts put it into the stands,” observes Oates. “It happens; it’s a penalty. But [the Panthers] had nothing going until then. And then they get a power play and they score at the very end of it and it gives them some momentum. Then we turn the puck over, and the guy makes a good play on the other goal.
“But we figured out a way to win, which is what we talked about this morning. It was also the first game back from the break. There were some good moments and some sloppy, but hey, it’s a win.”
Three Spot – For the first time in more than two and a half months, the Capitals own a modest three-game winning streak. Washington’s last run of three straight wins came from Dec. 7-10. Between the end of that run and the start of this one, the Capitals posted an 8-11-7 mark over a span of 26 games.
Four Wins – Washington finished February with a sparking 4-1 mark in its five games. The Caps also won four games in January, a month in which they played 15 games (4-7-4).
Eight For Number Eight – Ovechkin’s game-winning goal was his eighth of the season. Only Anaheim’s Corey Perry (nine) has more among all NHL players this season.
Ovechkin now has 67 career game-winning goals, six behind Peter Bondra (73) for the Capitals’ all-time franchise lead in that category. Bondra holds the Caps’ single-season franchise mark for game-winning goals; he had 13 of them in 1997-98. Ovechkin’s single-season career best is 11; he first reached that plateau in 2007-08 and matched it in 2010-11.
All Lined Up – The Caps’ top line of Laich, Backstrom and Ovechkin combined to record all three of Washington’s even-strength goals in the game, and each player finished the night with a goal and two assists.
“I think we played well today,” says Ovechkin. “We had opportunities to score; we had lots of chances in the offensive zone. That’s how we have to play. Of course we made a couple of mistakes in the second and the third, but other than that I think we played well.”
Laich ended a six-game dry spell without any points with his Thursday night performance against the Panthers.
“I thought we had some very good looks,” says Laich. “They’re two guys that really move the puck and two guys that really think offensively. For myself, it’s about opportunity. You come to the rink this morning and see your name with Backstrom and Ovechkin, and you get a little smile on your face and say, ‘Okay, here we go. Let’s have a good game.’ I had a great preparation before the game, wanted to make the most of the opportunity. I had a good game and hopefully we’ll stay together in Boston.”
Power Surge – The Caps had only two power-play chances of their own on the game, but they converted on both. Although the Capitals have managed to score with the extra man in only five of their last 17 games, they stand second in the NHL with a 22.4% power-play success rate on the season.
Missing Man – Playing in his first game since suffering a lower body injury in a Jan. 24 game against the Devils in New Jersey, Caps center Mikhail Grabovski did not last long. After logging four shifts for a total of 2:20 in ice time, Grabovski was unable to continue.
Early in the game, the Caps were down to 11 forwards, and one of those (Nicolas Deschamps) was playing in his first NHL game.
“More so just because it’s the first game coming off the break and guys are not quite in their game shape,” says Oates of the problems presented by Grabovski’s departure. “It’s a hot building and all of a sudden from the get go you’ve got to shuffle them up. The guys played a lot of minutes and there was a lot of double-shifting, which makes it difficult, but that’s part of the game.”
Washington’s remaining pivots chipped in to carry the load. Backstrom skated 19:34 on the night, Jay Beagle logged 15:31 and Eric Fehr punched in for 14:36.
“He went down pretty early and first game back after the break,” says Laich of Grabovski. “There was a bit of concern on the bench; we were going to have to shift our lines and guys were going to have to play more minutes than they were used to, especially after the break. But I think collectively Nicky handled some of those minutes, Fehrise handled some of those minutes and Beags picked up some minutes. I think the guys pitched in and did a good job.”
Hot Stuff – Brouwer scored two power-play goals in the same game for the first time since Dec. 13, 2010 when he did so as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks in a 7-5 loss to the Colorado Avalanche in Denver.
Five of Brouwer’s 16 goals on the season have come in Washington’s last three games.
Multiple Man – Laich had two points in the first period of Thursday’s game, collecting an assist on the Brouwer goal and then netting his sixth goal of the season. Thursday’s game marks the first multiple-point game for Laich in a span of 55 regular season games, dating back to April 5, 2012 when he had a goal and an assist in a 4-2 Washington win over the Panthers at Verizon Center.
“I thought he looked great and obviously scoring early sure helps;” says Oates, “it gets your juices going. My biggest concern is if we take too many penalties on a night, I use him [on the penalty kill] and then he can’t play on that line. That’s not a perfect formula, but there is going to be a lot of grinding going on down the stretch and he can handle that. He can free up some opportunities for Backi and Ovi. They got the winner and they all contributed on that [game-winning] goal.”
Laich finished the night with three points (one goal, two assists) for the 11th time in his NHL career.
Laich’s last three-point game in the NHL was a three-assist effort against Anaheim at Verizon Center on Nov. 1, 2011.
And Then There Were Seven – Jet lag got the better of Caps forward Marcus Johansson on Thursday. After playing in the gold medal game on Sunday at the Sochi Olympic Games, the Swedish Olympian spent a few days in Stockholm attending to some visa issues. He then spent Wednesday traveling to South Florida, and found himself feeling sluggish at Thursday’s morning skate.
Johansson believed that a pregame meal and a nap would cure what ailed him, but pre-game warm-ups convinced him otherwise.
“He felt lousy in warm-up,” says Oates of Johansson.
The Caps had recalled Deschamps from AHL Hershey a day earlier just in case something went wrong with plans to get Johansson to Florida after the Olympics.
Deschamps, a 24-year-old Quebec native who was once a second-round draft choice (35th overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft) of the Anaheim Ducks, drew into the lineup, becoming the seventh player to make his NHL debut for the Capitals this season. Deschamps was minus-1 with one hit in 7:38 of work in his first game in the league.
Johansson was one of eight Capitals who played in all 59 of Washington’s games before the Olympic break; now there are seven Caps with perfect attendance on the season.
By The Numbers – Carlson paced the Caps with 24:33 in ice time … Brouwer led Washington with five shots on net and he also contributed five hits … Karl Alzner paced the Capitals with six hits on the night … Connor Carrick’s four blocked shots led the way for the Caps … Fehr won seven of 10 (70%) face-offs in the game … Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson led his team with eight hits in the contest … Campbell’s 25:26 was tops among all Cats on the night.