Washington has won 10 of its past 11 games and has reached the 40-win plateau for the fourth consecutive season, a streak never accomplished in franchise history. The Capitals now own 90 points — one behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the Eastern Conference lead — and their rise up the standings over the past three weeks has come from playing a more physical game.
“We want to keep the puck down low,” said Boyd Gordon, who scored his third goal of the season Sunday. “Our forwards, for the most part, are big, strong guys. . . . I think we’ve been playing a lot grittier this year and just finding ways to win hockey games through it.”
The Capitals and Blackhawks, who had won eight of 10 heading into the contest, established a tempo from the start that reminded viewers why it is almost unfair that the two star-laden, strong-skating clubs meet so rarely in the NHL season. An up-and-down flow created chances on both ends, but it was the Capitals who didn’t seem to start off the game particularly well, taking a penalty in the first minute and spotting Chicago a 1-0 lead before five minutes elapsed.
A shot by Blackhawks defenseman Nick Leddy trickled between goaltender Braden Holtby’s legs to put Chicago up, but falling behind by one goal has become almost customary for the Capitals and they answered swiftly.
While killing off a second penalty in the first six minutes of the game, Gordon was able to corral a puck that skipped past Patrick Sharp to go on a short-handed breakaway. Gordon’s slap shot eluded Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford, who finished with 38 saves, to tie the score at 1 and prevent the Blackhawks from taking greater control over the game.
“That was a huge goal,” said Holtby, who earned a fourth straight win and finished with 27 saves in his 10th NHL start. “We knew they were a team that comes out hard in the first period . . . getting the lead on the power play right off the start probably didn’t help. Just tried to weather the storm there for a bit, but coming back when Boyd got that goal, you could just tell that the momentum swung in our favor.”
Jason Arnott gave the Capitals their first lead of the contest on the power play with 53.7 seconds remaining in the first period, scoring on a point shot that came with traffic in front of the Blackhawks’ net to make it 2-1. Chicago’s Tomas Kopecky returned that tally at 3:09 of the second period, when he threw the puck at the net from a bad angle behind the goal line and it found space between Holtby and the left goal post.
Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr had standout games, and their line routinely spent their shifts below the faceoff circles in the Chicago zone. After two periods of causing problems for the Blackhawks, they cashed in. With Matt Hendricks filling in on the third line and Jason Chimera in the box for fighting Brent Seabrook, Fehr outworked reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and sent a pass to the slot, where Laich fired a one-timer for a 3-2 edge.
“Eventually, you hope that if you keep doing things right you’re going to get rewarded,” Laich said. “I think our forwards are as big as anybody’s in the league and on top of that, they can skate. As a defenseman, you don’t like going back for the puck. Guys keep coming at you. It wears on you eventually, through a game.”
With Marcus Johansson in the box for hooking, Jonathan Toews found a rebound in the crease with 38.5 seconds remaining to force overtime and mark just the second time in the past 11 games that the Capitals have given up more than two goals.
The extra time didn’t fluster Washington, and rookie Johansson looked like someone determined to atone for a penalty when he sent a perfect pass to Knuble in front for the game-winner.
“Real heads-up play by Marcus,” Knuble said. “It would have been very easy for him to bury his head there and try to jam it through, but I kind of laid my stick to the side and he put it on the tape. It was a very smart play by him.”
Capitals notes: Coach Bruce Boudreau said in his pregame comments to reporters that goaltender Michal Neuvirth was healthy and ready to play should he be called upon, but Holtby got the start because he had won three straight. “I don’t have a crystal ball; I just know he’s playing really good,” Boudreau said of Holtby. “So why not continue to play him until something else happens?” . . . Washington is the first team in NHL history to get seven or more victories from three goalies age 22 or younger.