Take the midway point of Thursday night’s game at Verizon Center. The crowd was thin and subdued, no doubt distracted by a certain football team’s appearance in Minnesota. The visiting — not to mention frustrating — Minnesota Wild led by a goal and had outshot the Washington Capitals by a three-to-one margin. From that point, the Capitals’ longest winning streak of the year seemed as if it would have to come at another time.
What happened over those final 30 minutes, though, could buoy this group. No one in a red sweater claimed what became a 3-2 shootout victory was Washington’s best effort — as they had just two nights earlier in a win over the New York Islanders. But they ground out a game-tying goal from Marcus Johansson with just more than three minutes remaining, got a staunch penalty kill that straddled regulation and overtime, used goaltender Braden Holtby as a backbone and won it when Nicklas Backstrom buried the only goal of the shootout.
So in that stretch, the Capitals’ visage heading into a difficult weekend trip — first to Phoenix, then to Colorado — changed. They have won four games in a row, their most in this young season, and swept a three-game homestand. The turnaround from that massive lull in the second period resulted in a trickle of something that has been difficult to find thus far: confidence.
“It’s getting there,” said Holtby, who saved 33 of 35 shots in regulation and overtime, then didn’t allow a goal in the shootout. “You can tell just by the way the guys are playing. It’s coming. We obviously aren’t too cocky in here, but I think we’re a group that believes in ourselves and thinks we can win a ton of games.”
If that proves true, they will have to win some like they did Thursday, when they didn’t play their best against a Minnesota team that is almost designed to produce plodding efforts. The Wild, backed by goalie Josh Harding — who leads the league in save percentage and goals against average — make it supremely difficult to get shots to the net. When they do get through, Harding usually responds.
So after the Capitals scored their opening goal in the usual fashion — a power-play blast from Alex Ovechkin, his third on the man advantage in the past two games — Washington looked stagnant. By the end of the first, the Wild had tied it up with a power-play goal of its own, and then the Capitals just shrank. Midway through the second, the Wild had 18 shots. The Capitals had six.
“We sold ourselves out a lot with some bad passes, bad position,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We got away from our structure.”
Not to mention any semblance of enthusiasm. Mikael Granlund’s goal just six minutes into the second looked very much like it would stand up. The disciplined Wild took away Washington’s best weapon — its league-best power play — by staying out of the penalty box for much of the night. And even when the Capitals had one last chance on the power play, Troy Brouwer got one past Harding — and hit the post. The building deflated.
The strategy, at that point: “Try and just be resilient and wear ’em down,” Laich said.
Late in the third period, Laich said he lined up for a faceoff near Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter, who leads the league in ice time and was on his way to a 37-minute night. Suter, Laich said, was huffing and puffing on that shift. The Wild iced the puck, forcing another faceoff in the Minnesota end, and the same Wild unit had to remain on the ice.
That set it all up. Laich ground it out behind the net. Rookie Tom Wilson poked the puck to Johansson at the right circle. With Laich stationed at the far post, Johansson fired through traffic, and the puck somehow trickled past bodies and Harding to tie it up with 3:08 remaining.
“What I like about the tying goal, it took a lot of hard work, and we fought through a lot of frustration because they were giving you nothing,” Coach Adam Oates said. “It’s hard to get shots to the net. You’re going into territory that’s really difficult.”
Yet they scored. Then came the second challenge: surviving. With 58 seconds remaining, forward Martin Erat took a questionable interference penalty. “Tough call on Marty,” Oates said. “Oooof. Tough call.”
Yet the Capitals killed it. They survived the infuriating style of the Wild. And when Backstrom scored his goal and Holtby stopped Charlie Coyle, they celebrated a win that for so much of the night looked like a loss.