Saturday’s game between the Capitals and the Phoenix Coyotes was a fairly significant contest for both clubs. Both entered the game with pedestrian 2-2-1 marks in five games since the Olympic break. Both entered the game on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in. And both started the night just a single point south of the final playoff spot in their respective conference with about five weeks of season remaining.
For about five-sixths of the game, it looked as though the Coyotes had things well under control and that they’d be the happy team going home with the two points. And then the complexion of the entire game changed drastically and dramatically in just over half a minute.
Down 2-0 and without a goal in nearly 116 minutes at the midpoint of the third period, Washington erupted for three goals in a span of 5:02 to skate off with an improbable and important 3-2 victory over the stunned Coyotes.
“What we did talk about was [how] you have to be patient,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “You can’t gamble to try and get that first goal. It’s a recipe that you try and sell every night.
“We weren’t playing that bad. It’s hard sledding; it really is. The league is very difficult. We waited, we didn’t panic, we didn’t give an outnumbered situation to try and cheat to try and get a goal. We got the first [goal], [Brooks Laich’s] line broke them down to get the second goal, and then the [power play] wins it.”
The first two of those three goals came in a span of 32 seconds, and they came off the sticks of two players – Karl Alzner and Laich – whose presence in the game was in question earlier in the day.
Washington earned the game’s first power play at 3:58 of the first period when Joel Ward drew a holding call on Antoine Vermette. The Caps teed up six shots on that extra-man opportunity, getting three of them on net. Caps captain Alex Ovechkin authored each of those three power-play shots on goal but the Caps’ best chance to take a 1-0 lead went by the wayside when Troy Brouwer pushed his shot from the diamond just wide on the right side of the cage.
The Caps dodged a bullet when the Coyotes scored, only to have the goal waved off when it was ruled on the ice that Washington netminder Jaroslav Halak was pushed into the cage with the puck beneath him.
Phoenix still managed to take a 1-0 lead before the end of the first frame, though. The Coyotes caught the Caps in transition and in a partial line change with just 1:02 left in the first. Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle alertly fired a pass to Brandon McMillan at the Washington line, and he broke into the Washington end with Caps defenseman Mike Green in close pursuit. But McMillan had enough time and space to rip a wrist shot from the left circle past Halak.
Early in the second period, the Coyotes’ surging power play doubled the visiting team’s advantage. Michael Stone fired a shot from center point, and Halak got most of it, but the puck trickled through his legs and wobbled near the goal line. Coyotes forward Radim Vrbata was in position to tap it home, and he did exactly that to make it a 2-0 game at 3:20 of the second.
The Coyotes outshot the Caps 15-10 in the second, and Phoenix netminder Mike Smith thwarted Washington’s best chance to get on the board when he stopped Eric Fehr’s backhander in a one-on-one situation.
Heading into the third period, the Caps appeared to be well on their way to a fourth successive loss. The situation grew direr when Laich went to the box for hooking just 11 seconds into the final period. Halak stopped all three Coyotes shots on the power play to keep the Caps within striking distance.
Washington began to slowly turn the tides of possession, and it finally broke through at 9:45 of the third. Alzner floated a shot toward the net from the left point, and the puck seemingly had eyes. It made its way through a screen in front and over Smith’s right shoulder on the short side to make it a 2-1 game.
“I was excited,” says Alzner. “Everyone seemed really excited. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was me who scored it and not a guy who normally scores, but people seemed really up after that. It was the perfect momentum swing and the perfect line to come out right after that. It was a perfect storm for us.”
Alzner had left the game briefly in the first period because he did not feel well, and he was not on the bench when the second period got underway.
On the very next shift, the Caps pulled even with the Coyotes. Ex-Caps winger Martin Erat turned the puck over behind the Phoenix net, and Jason Chimera collected it and curled toward the left wing corner. He spotted Laich alone in front, and fed him perfectly. Laich banged it home from the top of the paint for Washington’s second goal in 32 seconds.
Laich did not participate in Saturday’s morning skate, and seemed likely to sit out the game against the Coyotes with his nagging lower body injury.
Phoenix forward David Moss gave Washington a window for the win when he went off for tripping at 13:37 of the third. It was just the second power play opportunity of the game for the Capitals, but it was all they’d need to nail down the two points.
Nicklas Backstrom fired a sharp shot from the right circle, and Smith made a right pad save, but the rebound caromed right to Troy Brouwer, who fired it into a yawning cage to give the Caps their first lead of the game at 14:47.
“We’ve had a couple of starts in the last few games that haven’t been acceptable on our terms,” says Brouwer. “Going into the third it was kind of the same story again, we need points. It was against a team in a difference conference, but we still need points. Whether is 20 minutes, 25 or a shootout, we still need two points. We know that we are at point where our season is on the line every game, and that should be enough motivation, and tonight it was.”
Washington held on the rest of the way to notch its 30th victory of the season in its fourth try. The Caps have had their own difficulties this season trying to protect two-goal leads. Tonight, they put that shoe on the Coyotes’ foot.
“To win hockey games in this league you have to pay the price to win them,” declares Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. “In the critical times of the game we don’t pay the price to win. We have that and some of the issues with taking bad penalties in the third period, and it has caught up with us.”
Eight In Eight – Brouwer now has eight points (seven goals, one assist) in his last eight games. He and Ward are now tied for second on the team with 18 goals each. Brouwer’s game-winning goal in Saturday night’s game was his second of the season.
Drought Over – When Alzner’s shot found the back of the net midway through the third, it halted a streak of 115:45 in which Washington had not scored a goal. Alzner’s tally was also the Capitals’ first five-on-five goal in a span of 196:07, dating back to late in the second period of last Sunday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers when Dmitry Orlov scored his second goal of the game.
Alzner’s goal was his second of the season, matching a single-season career best set in 2010-11.
Another Debut – For the third straight game, Washington had a newly acquired player from the 2014 trade deadline in its lineup for the first time.
Dustin Penner made his Caps debut against the Flyers in Philadelphia on Wednesday night and Chris Brown did the same a night later against the Bruins in Boston. On Saturday night, it was Halak who was taking his maiden voyage as a member of the Capitals.
“To be honest, it was really weird,” admits Halak of his first game with the Caps and his first appearance in an NHL game since Feb. 26. “Wearing that jersey, looking down and seeing the red color, it was way different from what I had in St. Louis.
“But I’m really happy to be here and for the opportunity I’ve got here. I just want to play good for the guys and help them get the two points. But tonight I think they did the job for me. They came back from a 2-0 deficit in the third and played a really great third period.”
Halak’s win was his 25th of the season, marking the fourth time in the last five seasons that he has reached that plateau.
The Caps are likely to have a fourth straight game with a player making his Caps debut on Monday. Newly signed forward Evgeny Kuznetsov is likely to make his NHL debut with the Capitals on Monday against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center.
Kuznetsov arrived at Verizon Center just before the start of the game after flying from his native Chelyabinsk, Russia to Moscow to Munich to Washington. He’ll skate by himself on Sunday – it’s an off-day for the team – and he’ll join his new teammates for Monday’s morning skate ahead of the game against the Penguins.
“If he feels good and we get a practice,” says Oates, “we see how he looks and we’ll watch some video because he doesn’t know this hockey and we don’t want to put him in a situation that he can’t handle right now. But, in saying that, if we can spot him in the lineup it could be a nice spark for us. He’s a very talented man. I think he’s big enough, and he’s got a good head on his shoulders, so we’ll try to ease him in as slow as we can and hopefully not play him for 20 minutes the first night.”
Seven Up – Saturday’s game marks the seventh time this season that the Capitals have won a game in which they trailed after 40 minutes of play.
Washington’s seven wins when trailing after two periods is tied with Philadelphia and the New York Islanders for the most in the NHL. The Caps are 7-19-3 when down after the game’s first 40.
Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears spent the weekend in Norfolk playing a pair of games against the Norfolk Admirals. After taking a 3-2 road win in the first game on Friday night, the Bears suffered a 3-1 setback to Norfolk on Saturday.
Michael Latta netted Hershey’s only goal on a Bears power play in Saturday’s game, his ninth goal of the season and the first goal of the game at 9:46 of the first period. But the Admirals responded with three unanswered tallies the rest of the way to salvage a split of the weekend series.
David Leggio stopped 18 of the 21 shots he faced in the Hershey nets in a losing effort.
The 30-22-3-4 Bears are in ninth place in the AHL’s Eastern Conference standings, two points behind eighth-place Albany.
Down a level, the ECHL Reading Royals earned a 5-4 home ice win over the Wheeling Nailers on Friday night. The Royals were at home again on Saturday, this time hosting the Evansville IceMen at Santander Arena. The Royals dusted the visitors by a 5-1 count.
Brandon Blandina and Sean Wiles scored in the first, Yannick Tifu tallied twice in the second and Kevin Walrod scored in the third period to help support Riley Gill’s 32-save efforts in the Reading crease.
The 35-19-1-1 Royals now own an eight-point lead over second-place Wheeling for the top spot in the ECHL’s Atlantic Division. Reading also has three games in hand on the Nailers.
By The Numbers – John Carlson led the Capitals with 23:50 in ice time … Ovechkin paced Washington with six shots on net, 11 shot attempts and six hits … Jack Hillen led the Caps with two blocked shots … Vermette won 14 of 19 (74%) of the draws he took on the night for Phoenix.