It was the kick in the rear that the Capitals needed. In the third, they played one of their strongest 20 minutes of the season, then tied the contest to force overtime when Alex Ovechkin scored to secure an important 3-2 win over Tampa Bay.
The victory gives Washington 72 points, two behind Florida for the Southeast Division lead and advances it into eighth place in the Eastern Conference thanks to Winnipeg’s 3-2 loss in Vancouver. The Jets also have 72 points, but have played one more game than the Capitals. Equally as significant, though, is that the Capitals kept Tampa Bay from pulling closer in this scramble to the postseason.
For all of it to be possible, the players acknowledged afterward that they needed the timely wakeup call from Hunter, who declined to share details of the intermission speech.
“You know, just we’ve got to go out and work hard,” Hunter said with a sly grin when asked what his message to the team was. “We just had to get the pucks in deep and work, you know? There’s not going to be the two-on-ones, the three-on-twos where you can make pretty plays. We just had to get it in deep and work and create scoring chances.”
Boy, did the Capitals ever receive that message. Washington entered the third period trailing 2-1 but displayed a relentlessness when it came to creating chances by winning puck battles and chipping and chasing.
There was a cohesiveness to their game that has been elusive this season as the Capitals chipped the puck in the offensive zone and worked for support to churn through the Tampa Bay defense for shots. All told in that final frame, Washington recorded 12 shots on goal but fired another 15 that were either blocked or misses compared to only six attempted shots (only three on goal) for the Lightning.
Despite the barrage of shots, it took until there were fewer than four minutes remaining in regulation for the Capitals to solve Tampa Bay rookie netminder Dustin Tokarski, who was making his first NHL start. Tokarski, 22, could only take so much though and when the puck popped loose to Marcus Johansson in the slot the Capitals’ centerman shot between his legs to make it 2-2 with 3 minutes 58 seconds left in the third.
“We have to put some pressure and give D big pressure because they big and they strong but they slow,” Ovechkin said. “If we put the puck in deep and get a chip and make a physical game they going to tire in the end and you see what happened in the third.”
As it turns out Tokarski was fighting full body cramps in the third period and needed two bags of sodium chloride solution after the game.
Washington continued to control the play in overtime and didn’t allow a single shot on goal against in the extra session. With time ticking down, a turnover at the blue line by Tampa Bay gave the Capitals possession once again. The puck eventually wound up on the stick of Dmitry Orlov in the slot, who faked a shot but instead passed to the right where Ovechkin was standing alone and able to whip a puck past Tokarski for the game-winner.
Before the third-period comeback and Ovechkin’s overtime heroics — since 2005-06 no player has scored more overtime winners than the star winger (12) — Washington found itself in a familiar position. The Capitals trailed entering the final frame of regulation, which was a consistent fact in each of the five games on this homestand.
Keith Aucoin put Washington on the board with a 1-0 lead, 17:08 into the first, when he deflected a point shot by Alzner off his skate then stick and across the goal line.
In the second, Tampa Bay surged and controlled the play while the Capitals’ offense dried up and went 16:56 without a shot in the stanza. Power-play goals by Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell would put the Lightning ahead 2-1 heading into the third and prompting Hunter’s speech.
“He said just quit trying to use your skill,” Brooks Laich said, “and use your will a little bit more.”
Capitals note: Defenseman Mike Green could face supplementary discipline for a hit he delivered to the head of Lightning winger Brett Connolly at 11:06 of the second period. With Orlov riding Connolly into the boards, Green skated in and drove the upper part of his arm and shoulder into the Tampa Bay forward’s head.
No penalty was called on the play, but it included two main points of emphasis that NHL vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan has focused on when giving suspensions: that Connolly’s head was the principal point of contact and he was in a vulnerable position.