It was a vintage Alex Ovechkin goal and it came at the perfect time.
A long pass from teammate Mike Knuble banked off the boards and Ovechkin charged after the puck late in the third period of the Capitals’ game against the Florida Panthers on Saturday night. Instead of pulling up to assess the situation, Ovechkin drove hard to the net and – a split-second before getting knocked into the air - slipped the puck past goalie Scott Clemmensen.
With 3 minutes, 55 seconds remaining, that proved to be the decisive goal as the Caps earned a 3-2 victory over Florida at Verizon Center. Defenseman Mike Green had scored a power-play goal with 6:53 to play, breaking a 1-1 tie. Florida right wing Evgeny Dadonov made things tight again after his goal with 1:37 left, but Washington held off a 6-on-4 Panthers advantage after Nicklas Backtrom took a tripping penalty and Clemmensen was pulled for the extra attacker.
“Knuble got the puck and made great pass and the [defenseman] crashed in,” Ovechkin said. “Then it was one move and puck goes in – finally.”
The star winger had just four goals in his previous 23 games. He’s also dealing with a painful injury that led to a cortisone shot after Tuesday’s loss to Tampa Bay. But maybe a highlight-reel tally will get him started on his normal 50-goal path. Ovechkin has just 15 on the season through 42 games. When Green scored his goal in the third he notched his sixth point in the last six games. The Caps don’t lose often when that duo gets on the score sheet together.
“I think it’s a sign of things to come,” said Caps forward Eric Fehr, whose second-period goal tied the game at 1 and was his third in three games. “I think [Ovechkin] just needed to get one to get on a roll and [Green] played one of his best games in the last couple of months.”
It was an inauspicious start. Moving Ovechkin to right wing and Alex Semin to left wing – and making sure Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom were on separate lines – did absolutely nothing for the offense. Washington managed just five shots during the first period, two of those no-hopers from beyond the blue line, and went 0-for-3 on the power play.
The Panthers took advantage of a shaky pass from Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov (25 saves). It was intercepted by David Booth, who found Dmitry Kulikov in the middle and Mike Santorelli snuck home a rebound to make it 1-0 at 3:49 of the first period.
Things took a positive turn in the second period. Mathieu Perreault started the Caps towards their opening goal of the night, kicking the puck ahead to himself and sending off the first of five passes that resulted in Fehr goal’s. That tied the game at 1 and was the third Washington goal in a row scored by Fehr dating to last weekend’s Winter Classic.
But limited traffic in front of Clemmensen kept the scoring chances to a minimum the rest of the period. Neither team earned a full power play in the second and the Panthers managed just nine shots. Bruce Boudreau’s line experiment then ended early the second period and Ovechkin moved back to left wing on the top line with Backstrom and Knuble. Semin was back on the second line at right wing with rookie center Marcus Johansson and Brooks Laich. Not long after the switch the offense – which had been shut out in an overtime loss to Tampa Bay on Tuesday - finally delivered.
“Just to get the lead in the third period, it was like a breath of fresh air,” Boudreau said. “It seems when you come off of a shutout ... you're never going to score. Every goal you get is such a difficult goal.”
Washington (24-12-6, 54 points) remained behind Tampa Bay (25-12-5, 55 points) for first place in the Southeast Division. The Lightning beat Ottawa on Saturday night, 2-1 The Caps are 6-1-3 in their last 10 games, sit fifth in the Eastern Conference and have two more division games against the Panthers and Tampa Bay on the road this week.