By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 2009
SUNRISE, Fla., Feb. 15 -- Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin said he issued Florida Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun a warning when the two crossed paths during warmups.
"I saw him and I said, 'Hey, I'm coming for you, baby,' " Ovechkin said, "I'm going to score two goals. He said, 'Okay, try.' So I try."
Ovechkin, as it turned out, was off by one.
The NHL's reigning MVP scored twice on Vokoun and once into an empty net on Sunday to bail out the Capitals, who blew a two-goal lead but recovered late for a 4-2 victory at BankAtlantic Center that dealt the Panthers' hopes of catching them in the Southeast Division another blow.
Ovechkin's hat trick was his third this season and the eighth of his career, and it boosted his league-leading goal count to 41. And the Capitals needed his offense on a night when they struggled to stay out of the penalty box and defenseman Mike Green's historic goal-scoring streak came to an end at eight games.
Washington found itself in a familiar spot in the third period: in penalty trouble. But the improving penalty kill unit, which has snuffed out 20 of the past 21 short-handed situations it has faced, thwarted two of the Panthers' three opportunities in the final 20 minutes (and seven of eight overall).
Then Ovechkin came to the rescue with 2 minutes 31 seconds left to play.
Nicklas Backstrom (two assists) sent a rink-long pass to Ovechkin, who snagged the puck along the wall, cut to the middle of the faceoff circle and snapped a short-angle shot between Panthers defenseman Jay Bouwmeester's skates and past Vokoun to put the Capitals back on top, 3-2.
Ovechkin added an empty-netter -- from the Capitals' zone on the backhand with a broken stick, no less -- to clinch their second win in less than 24 hours and third in four games. The two points gained in the standings, meantime, boosted their lead over the Panthers to 13 points in the division.
"It was a very important game for us," Ovechkin said. "Florida is behind us [in the division] and we don't want to give them any chances to feel like they can catch us."
Ovechkin now has scored a league-best 20 goals in the third period and has moved into the lead with nine game-winners as the 23-year-old Russian continues to bolster his bid for back-to-back Hart Trophies.
Before Ovechkin's heroics, though, the Capitals appeared to be doing their best to hand the game to the Panthers.
Sergei Fedorov was banished to the penalty box for clearing the puck over the glass. Moments later, Panthers center Nathan Horton poked a loose puck underneath José Theodore (29 saves) only 1:29 into the third period to tie the game at 2.
The Capitals faced two more short-handed situations down the stretch -- after Backstrom was whistled for clearing the puck over the glass from virtually the same spot on the ice as Fedorov and Alexander Semin was sent off for goalie interference. This time, though, the penalty kill unit came up huge.
"We thought the glass was higher than that, for sure," Coach Bruce Boudreau cracked before turning serious. "It takes a great character win for a team to come back and win the way we did."
Green, meanwhile, couldn't keep his goal-scoring streak intact, despite taking four shots. In Saturday night's 5-1 victory at Tampa Bay, he set an NHL record for defensemen by scoring a goal in his eighth straight game.
"I had some shots, but not those quality ones that I've had the last little while," Green said.
Ovechkin gave the Capitals a 1-0 lead with a power-play goal late in a sluggish first period. Ovechkin fired a wrist shot from the top of the circles that eluded Vokoun, who was screened by Brooks Laich and a Panthers defenseman. The goal was Ovechkin's 13th on the power play.
Eric Fehr kept his goal streak alive only 30 seconds into the second period. Fedorov carried the puck in from the side of the net and dished a pass through a Panthers defensemen to Fehr, who reached back for the puck and backhanded it past Vokoun to put the Capitals ahead 2-0.
It should have been enough. But it wasn't.
A defensive breakdown deep in the Capitals zone allowed Michael Frolik, a 20-year-old rookie, to wander in front of the net, and Stephen Weiss got him the puck. With three Capitals inexplicably behind the net at the same time, Frolik beat Theodore at 12:08 to make it 2-1, which is how things remained until the third period.
Horton tied things up early. Then Ovechkin did what he does so well late.
Capitals Notes: Forward Michael Nylander and defensemen John Erskine and Staffan Kronwall were healthy scratches. . . . Forward Viktor Kozlov missed his fifth consecutive game with a groin muscle pull.