Moments before the Washington Capitals began their 2011-12 season Saturday night, while neither team was on the ice, a banner unceremoniously dropped from the Verizon Center rafters. It commemorated last year’s Southeast Division championship, the fourth straight for the Capitals, but the minimal fanfare made clear this is no longer the franchise’s goal.
Washington began its latest pursuit of more than regular season success with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Mike Green’s power-play goal. The tally, which redirected off an opposing defender’s shin pad before beating goaltender Brian Boucher through the five-hole, wasn’t a candidate for any best-of highlight reel. The Capitals as a whole didn’t appear completely polished either in recording their first win in front of a crowd of 18,506, the 107th consecutive sellout at Verizon Center.
Jason Chimera and Alexander Semin each recorded a goal, Brooks Laich added one on the power play and Michal Neuvirth was strong in making 28 stops, but Washington allowed a pair of power-play goals to Carolina captain Eric Staal. The Capitals also coughed up two one-goal leads in the third period, including a score in the final two minutes to force overtime.
But in finding resolve each time Carolina rallied, particularly in overtime as the Capitals weathered a boarding penalty to Semin, the team showed something to build upon.
“We came away with a big win,” Chimera said. “It was a character win. Anytime they tie it up, it is kind of an emotional letdown, but we got our guard back up, which is nice.”
At the start of the contest there were signs of anxiety as the Capitals, with four of their five offseason additions in the lineup, faced a Hurricanes squad playing its second game in as many nights.
“It was the first game — the crowd’s into it, there are a lot of new guys,” Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Nerves are there. It’s like the first day on the job and going into the office, you’re nervous whether you’re a 20-year veteran on the job or just brand-new.”
Washington’s lineup simply didn’t look comfortable in the first period, particularly on a pair of power plays that began before 10minutes had elapsed. The Capitals went 0 for 2 and mustered just two shots on those early chances, showing signs of the bad habits that plagued the unit the previous season.
“We were a little bit nervous and bobbling the puck and not playing the way we could skill-wise at the start,” Green said. “But we were playing positionally and we stuck with that throughout the whole game, and I think that’s why we kept it so close.”
Washington’s confidence rebounded in the second period along with its puck possession. A series of shifts from every line hemmed the Hurricanes in their own zone. Despite the lopsided tenor of the game, the Capitals didn’t score first.
The Hurricanes took a lead when Staal scored his first of the night after taking aim at a wide-open net following a series of picturesque passes and a miscue between Green and Roman Hamrlik. Just more than two minutes later, Semin scored on a breakaway with a backhander to tie the score at 1. Before the period expired, Chimera found himself on a breakaway and shoveled the puck past Boucher to make it 2-1.
The Capitals’ response to the initial deficit included an physical tone from the forwards as they established themselves offensively. Washington was credited with 27 hits, with Troy Brouwer leading with six while Mike Knuble and Nicklas Backstrom each added four.
“That second period, we flying and we just flying in the zone all the time,” said Alex Ovechkin, who finished with an assist in 20 minutes 38 seconds of ice time. “We all get excited here and when you have opportunity to hit somebody, why not?”
At the start of the third, the Capitals were killing off a delay-of-game penalty to John Carlson when Carolina’s Staal eluded defensemen and found himself wide open in the right faceoff circle. Staal beat Neuvirth’s short side to tie the game at 2 only 18 seconds into the third. Washington’s 23-year-old netminder punched the air in frustration.
A power-play tally with less than five minutes remaining in regulation by Laich gave Washington a lead, but it was short-lived. Jussi Jokinen scored with 1:19 left while Carolina had its goaltender pulled.
With Semin in the box in overtime, the Hurricanes took aim at Neuvirth once again, even clanking a shot off the post, but the Czech, who was a surprise starter in net instead of veteran countryman Tomas Vokoun, remained calm.
“In the overtime, he was great,” Boudreau said. “That’s when you need the big save from the goalie, when you’re down four-on-three for two minutes in overtime. It was crunch time and he came through.”