By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010; D01
For most of the season, the Washington Capitals have been buoyed by their prolific power play, and on Saturday night, it added two more goals to its league-leading total. But the key to keeping their winning streak alive was a smothering penalty kill.
The unit was perfect for the third straight game, extinguishing all five short-handed situations it faced, including two in the third period, to help the Capitals hang on for a 4-2 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes at Verizon Center.
"The last few games we've tried to bear down on the penalty kill," Matt Bradley said. "In the playoffs, it's special teams that win you games. Not just the power play, but the penalty kill, too."
Almost as impressive as the penalty kill, which has snuffed out 14 straight opportunities and limited the Coyotes to three shots in 8 minutes 2 seconds of power-play time, is the roll the Capitals are on. They've won six straight games, nine of 10, and over the past week, have also knocked off Philadelphia as well as Detroit and Pittsburgh, last season's Stanley Cup finalists.
"I was really worried about this game because Phoenix is a good team but also because of a [potential] emotional letdown after playing Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I thought our guys answered the bell pretty well emotionally."
Eric Fehr and Alexander Semin (three assists) scored 3:44 apart late in the second period to put the Capitals ahead by two goals, and rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth made 14 of his 28 saves in the third period to shut the door. Brooks Laich and Alex Ovechkin also scored, but the happiest person in the home dressing room, by far, was Neuvirth.
"I was shaky at first, but I settled down and played my game," said Neuvirth, a 21-year-old making his first start since being pulled on back-to-back nights Jan. 12-13. "I was really down after those two games. I felt like my career was over."
Anything but. Neuvirth was at his best late as the Capitals clung to a one-goal lead.
With six minutes remaining, Lauri Korpikoski (two goals) made a strong bid for a hat trick when he skated around Ovechkin and broke in on Neuvirth alone. Neuvirth tracked the Coyotes' winger as he crossed the crease and got just enough of his pad on the puck to preserve the Caps' lead.
"He's a pressure goaltender," Boudreau said. "You don't win a [minor league] Calder Cup and play every game [without being one]. It's the American Hockey League, but you have got to be good. Sometimes he wants to be in this league so bad that things get to him."
The Capitals' power play helped them grab control late in the second period after Neuvirth stoned Scottie Upshall on a Coyotes advantage. About 30 seconds later at the other end, a gasping Upshall was sent off for hooking Tom Poti.
Fehr wasted little time making Upshall pay. After taking a no-look pass from Semin down low, Fehr fired a shot from the bottom of the circle. The puck hit Phoenix defenseman Sami Lepisto, a 2004 Capitals' draft pick the team dealt in the offseason for a fifth-round pick, and came right back to Fehr, who buried his second chance to put the Capitals ahead 2-1.
The goal was Fehr's 14th (but only second on the power play) and was the Capitals' second of the game with a man advantage. Fehr finished with a goal and an assist, giving him 26 points, one more than the career high he established last season.
Washington's power play has scored at least once nine times in the past 11 games and 14 times in that span.
After the power play was done working over the Coyotes, Semin and Tomas Fleischmann took a turn less than four minutes after Fehr's goal. Fleischmann sent a between-the-legs touch pass off the end boards out to Semin, who fired a shot through a sliver of open space between Ilya Bryzgalov's glove and pad.
The Coyotes made a game of it in the third period when Korpikoski scored his second goal of the game at 7:24. The winger fired a rebound off defenseman Jeff Schultz's skates in front past Neuvirth to make it 3-2.
Neuvirth was solid the rest of the way, and Ovechkin scored into an empty net with less than six seconds remaining to help the Capitals hold on for a victory that was never a sure thing, even after a start that saw Laich open the scoring on the power play at 8:23 of the first period.
"It feels good," Fehr said. "We're taking advantage of our power-play opportunities right now. Hopefully that will keep teams from taking penalties against us. If they don't, then we can make it cost them."
Capitals note: Defenseman Brian Pothier (broken hand) missed his fifth straight game.