NEWARK — After sleepwalking through the opening 30 minutes and falling behind by three goals, there was little evidence to suggest the Washington Capitals would depart Prudential Center with anything more than bruised egos.
But they managed to sneak out with a point in the standings thanks to unlikely hero Jason Chimera.
Chimera scored twice in the third period — including the equalizer with 1 minute 42 second remaining in regulation — to seize the team lead in goals and, more importantly, force the game to overtime. Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils eventually emerged with a 4-3 shootout victory, but the visitor’s dressing room seemed to take some solace in the third-period comeback.
“It shows we’re not going to quit,” Chimera said. Coach Dale Hunter “came in the second intermission and said, ‘We’re not out of this. Keep working hard.’ When [Alex Ovechkin] and [Alexander] Semin start working hard like they did in the third period, it makes such a big difference for our team. It radiates through the team.”
Brooks Laich sparked the rally only 3:48 into the third, when he finished off a dazzling display of passing that included deft touch passes from defenseman Dennis Wideman and Ovechkin.
Then Chimera, a checking-line winger who has never scored more than 17 goals in 11 NHL seasons but now has 13 in only 33 games, took control.
The 32-year-old speedster cut the Capitals’ deficit to 3-2 at 12:44 of the final period when he jammed the puck past Brodeur from the doorstep.
Then, with time running out, Chimera chipped in a deft backhanded pass from Laich, who started on a line with Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer but finished the contest skating with Chimera and Semin.
“I had no play and so I just threw it there,” Laich said of his pass. “And hoped and wished. We got lucky.”
Asked about scrambling the forward lines in the third period, Hunter said: “Sometimes you look for combinations that click. There was one shift where they played well, so we put them out again.”
Chimera is on pace for 32 goals. When Chimera was asked if he’s surprised himself with his offensive outburst, defenseman Karl Alzner interjected from across the room.
“No way,” Alzner cracked.
“I’ve been going to the net more than I have,” Chimera explained. “So I’m getting rewarded. Ten of those goals came from right in the paint. You have to get there. Hopefully I can keep it going all year.
“I would trade a few of those goals for a few more wins, that’s for sure,” he continued.
Chimera, like many of his teammates, struggled to explain the Capitals’ uninspired start to the night. Near the game’s midpoint, they were being outshot 20-8 and trailed 3-0.
“We weren’t ready to play,” Chimera said. “I don’t know if guys were looking forward to the Christmas break or what was wrong. But the execution was terrible. We looked like pee-wee hockey players. No one could make a pass. No one was getting the puck out. We were fanning on the puck.”
In a scoreless first period, goaltender Michal Neuvirth (25 saves) covered up for his teammates’ defensive deficiencies, despite the Capitals (17-14-2) getting outshot 9-6.
But the Devils (19-14-1) struck three times — on goals by Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Urbom and Adam Henrique — in a span of 7:48 during a slipshod second period.
“We turned the puck over probably 20 times in those two periods, which is unacceptable,” Alzner said. “You just can’t do it. We went from playing a really solid style of game against Nashville to thinking, ‘Oh maybe we’re back on the winning train. Let’s just do that.’ So we kind of got away from our game. That’s what happened — we shot ourselves in the foot.”
At the opposite end of the ice, Brodeur was both lucky and good. The 39-year-old snapped a five-game losing streak against the Capitals, saving his best for the shootout. After Nicklas Backstrom missed the net, he robbed Ovechkin with a slick glove save.
Meantime, Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias each beat Neuvirth in penalty shots to clinch the win, New Jersey’s seventh in its past nine games.
“We make things interesting on ourselves,” Devils Coach Peter DeBoer said. “Obviously not the way we wanted to play in the third period. . . . We have to clean up a few things. But we did a lot more right than wrong.”
The NHL now takes a two-day break for the holidays. And many of the Capitals likely will spend some of that time off considering how to categorize this game. Good comeback? Another incomplete effort? Or both?
“The point is very big,” Laich said. “You can’t underemphasize the point. Because you might need that point come March, April. But they’re a team we have to catch, a team that’s ahead of us. We can’t lose these hockey games. We have to have better results after Christmas.”