SUNRISE, Fla. – Always a group for making games closer and arguably more interesting than they should, the Capitals coughed up a pair of two-goal leads Thursday night against the Panthers but still managed to find a way to snag a 5-4 win.
Five thoughts about the win in South Florida:
1. Ovechkin to the rescue. In the first game back after the NHL’s Olympic break, Alex Ovechkin didn’t look like a player with any lingering affects from the emotional defeat of his national team on home ice in Sochi. He recorded a pair of primary assists and the game-winning goal. He was dynamic, made smart decisions with the puck and was involved in multiple scoring plays.
His first assist came at even strength when, after Dmitry Orlov picked off a stretch pass in the neutral zone to spring him up ice, Ovechkin recognized that a two-on-two was developing in the Capitals’ favor. With the Panthers cheating toward him, Ovechkin threaded a pass to Brooks Laich for a blast of a one-timer that put Washington up 2-0.
I “saw Thomas way too far [out in goal] and Brooksie’s D goes to kind of in the middle and he was wide open,” Ovechkin said. “Just give it to him and nice shot.”
Late in the second period on a power play, Ovechkin ripped a wicked one-timer from his spot in the left circle. Tim Thomas stopped the initial shot and held his position in an attempt to not let the puck squeak through, but it already had come free and was laying near the netminder’s feet. That allowed Troy Brouwer to swat the puck over the line for a 4-2 advantage.
And when the Capitals had relinquished that advantage as well, it seemed fitting that Ovechkin would be the one to give them the lead one more time. Nicklas Backstrom forced a turnover and put Laich and Ovechkin on a two-on-one. This time it was Laich that had the setup honors and Ovechkin snapped a shot past Thomas for goal No. 41 on the season.
“It’s always important when you score the goals,” Ovechkin said when asked about not having to wait long after the Olympics to light the lamp. “Because you’re going to feel great next day and next game.”
2. Backstrom, too. The Capitals’ top center had a strong outing in his first game since violating the IOC’s anti-doping policy at the Olympics because of excessive levels of a substance found in his allergy medication.
He recorded his first goal since Jan. 10, snapping a 15-game drought, when he fired a rebound over an outstretched Thomas. But he also threaded the pass to Ovechkin on the power play to set up Brouwer’s second goal and had the savvy pick at the blue line that led to the game-winner.
“I think it’s very important,” Backstrom said when asked about the solid start. “I felt good during the Olympics, I thought I played good so I took that back with me and brought it here. We have big weeks coming up here so we all have to be on top of our game.”
3. The top line. Coach Adam Oates has often said he prefers playing Brooks Laich at left wing and has wanted to experiment with the big winger on the top unit. But given Laich’s well-documented trouble with a lingering groin problem throughout Oates’s tenure, he hasn’t always had the chance to try it. Laich skated with Ovechkin and Backstrom in Florida, though, and all three members of the top line came away with three points on the night – recording a goal and two assists each.
“I thought he looked great and obviously scoring early sure helps, gets your juices going,” Oates said of seeing Laich do well with the two franchise pillars. “My biggest concern is if we take too many penalties on the night and use him there [on the penalty kill] he can’t play on that line so that’s not a perfect formula. But there’s going to be a lot of grinding going on down the stretch, he can handle that, and it will free up some opportunity for Backy and Ovi.”
Oates typically ices the top line immediately after a penalty kill, because neither Ovechkin nor Backstrom have played shorthanded consistently this season. Laich is a regular part of the penalty kill, though, making it more difficult to keep the unit together for the next shift than it would be with another player.
While only Oates knows how long he might keep this trio together, or if the chemistry would yield consistent results, their ability to click immediately in Florida showed potential. If Laich can stay healthy, having a player on the top line who is willing to drive the net and also read off Ovechkin and Backstrom might be worth an extended look.
“He’s a great player and he was excited,” Backstrom said of playing with Laich. “You can really see he’s feeling better, he had that jump in his skating and nice goal too, good one-timer. He brings a lot of speed and toughness to our line and that’s great.”
For Laich, who had only five goals and nine points in his first 44 games entering Thursday, posting his first three-point night since Nov. 1, 2011, is all about making the most of his opportunities.
“They’re two guys that really move the puck, two guys that really think offensively. For myself, its about opportunity. Come to the rink this morning, see your name’s with Backstrom and Ovechkin, you get a little smile on your face: ‘Okay, here we go, let’s have a good game.’ Had a great preparation before the game, wanted to make the most of the opportunity and had a good game. Hopefully we’ll stay together in Boston.”
4. Brouwer power. Sometimes scoring goals is as simple as going to the net. Troy Brouwer, another veteran forward who has wanted to get on the scoresheet more often than he has this season, recorded a pair of power-play goals by being in the right place around the blue paint at the right time to snare rebounds and deposit them behind Thomas.
His first goal came on a rebound from a John Carlson shot while he and Laich were creating traffic in front. On the second, he gained positioning on Marcel Goc and found the loose puck after Ovechkin’s shot. Brouwer has six goals in the last five games.
“That’s where I need to be successful, that’s where they expect me to be,” Brouwer said. “I’ve gotten away from it at times throughout the course of the season and have gotten into slumps as a result of it. I’m just working hard right now. We’re trying to make a good playoff push and we need everyone to contribute to find ways to get points like we did tonight.”
5. Green and Thomas. With less than five minutes to go, Mike Green jumped out of the penalty box to find the puck on his stick and a breakaway. It was the perfect opportunity for Green, who missed the last five games before the break with a concussion, to be the hero and help the Capitals kick off the stretch run in a positive manner.
As Green skated in on net a funny thing happened – Thomas fell backwards as he tried to retreat towards his crease. It left the upper two-thirds of the net wide open but Green fired right into Thomas’s outstretched glove, surprising everyone including the netminder. While Ovechkin would score the game-winner not long after the save, even Oates wondered at the time if that stop of Green signaled trouble for the Caps.
“I thought that was our opportunity but it goes to show you it’s never in until it actually goes in,” Oates said. “Sometimes it’s like shooting on the empty net — sometimes it’s hard because you’re supposed to score. The goalie doesn’t usually fall down in front of you on a breakaway.”