By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, January 18, 2010; D01
As the Washington Capitals' league-leading offense shifted into high gear in recent games, one name had been conspicuously absent from the score sheet: Brooks Laich.
But the slumping winger changed that Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center, where he snapped a lengthy drought and Alex Ovechkin converted on a penalty shot for the first time in his career to help the Capitals beat the Philadelphia Flyers, 5-3, and retake the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
The win was the Capitals' third in a row and sixth in seven games, and it helped them close out the season series against the Flyers with a 3-0-1 record. The offensive outburst also marked the fifth time in the past six games they've scored five or more goals.
"Eventually it's going to stop," Coach Bruce Boudreau said about his offense, which is averaging 3.71 goals per game (Chicago is second with 3.26). "We're not going to score five goals a game. But it's nice while it's going on."
Mike Knuble (six goals in six games) and Alexander Semin (11 points in seven games) also tallied, and José Theodore stopped 23 of 24 shots in the final 40 minutes after yielding two goals on the first eight shots he faced.
But the most productive Capital was also the one most in need of a big performance. Laich, who had not scored in eight games and only once in his previous 18, netted two goals, including the winner, which he scored short-handed early in the third period. It was his third multigoal game of the season.
With the Capitals clinging to a 3-2 lead, Laich poked the puck from Mike Richards in the neutral zone, gathered the loose puck, outraced the Flyers captain then flipped a backhander over Ray Emery's shoulder at 4 minutes 56 seconds of the third period. Laich had a lengthy meeting with Boudreau on Sunday morning to go over video.
"We had a good talk, and I was so happy when he scored," Boudreau said. "You are never going to find a guy that cares more than Brooks Laich."
Ovechkin put the game out of reach with 4:12 left to play with his first successful penalty shot. After getting hauled down by Braydon Coburn on a breakaway, Ovechkin lifted his leg, deked Emery and flipped a backhander into the goal. Ovechkin, who had missed his previous five penalty-shot attempts, has four goals and 10 assists in his past six contests.
"I just wanted to give the fans free chicken wings," Ovechkin joked, referring to a promotion from a local restaurant that gives fans 10 wings when the Capitals score five or more goals. About the penalty shot, he added: "I know what I'm going to do. He just didn't recognize what I'm going to do."
Ovechkin clinched a win that wasn't so certain in the early going.
The two-time MVP and his teammates came out "sleepy" in the first period, and as a result, had to rally twice to take a 2-2 tie into the second intermission.
Jeff Carter opened the scoring with a wrist shot that beat Theodore between the pads at 6:03. At that point, the Flyers had outshot the Capitals, 6-1.
Knuble and Ovechkin, however, brought Washington back only 1:46 later when Knuble crashed the net and jammed in a cross-crease pass from Ovechkin. But James van Riemsdyk restored the Flyers' lead with an ordinary-looking shot that eluded Theodore. The play began with a turnover by Matt Bradley in the corner.
But a clearly rusty Emery, who had not played since the teams' previous meeting on Dec. 5 because of abdominal surgery and faced only 22 shots, couldn't hold that lead, either. Laich ended his drought and tied it at 2 after Emery failed to squeeze a shot by Tomas Fleischmann. Semin set up the score by pickpocketing Scott Hartnell along the boards and dishing to Fleischmann.
Later in the first period, Semin wowed the capacity crowd with a no-look, between-the-skates pass to a cutting Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals didn't score on that play, but Semin brought the fans out of their seats 7:05 into the second period. On the power play, Mike Green's point shot was knocked down by Laich, who inadvertently steered it to a wide-open Semin for a 3-2 lead.
"I just tried to tip the puck into the net and it went to Semin," Laich said. "So I got lucky."
Theodore stopped all 12 shots he faced in the second period. The save of the middle 20 minutes, though, belonged to Tom Poti, who stopped a shot on the goal line with his skate.
"It was a free-for-all, and I just went down on all fours and fortunately it hit me," Poti said.
Capitals notes: Defensemen Brian Pothier and John Erskine were sidelined again because of injuries the team has refused to disclose. Erskine skated on his own at Kettler Capitals Iceplex Sunday morning and "feels a lot better," according to Boudreau. But Pothier, who was hurt blocking a shot Wednesday, "is no better than he was yesterday," Boudreau said. . . .
Ovechkin's four shots gave him 2,000 for his career in 4 1/2 seasons. No other NHL player had reached 2,000 in his first six seasons. . . .
This is the latest the Capitals have been in first place in their conference in franchise history.