By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 12:47 AM
Jason Arnott will be the first to say that it takes time for a new player to jell with his linemates and that his chemistry with Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin is far from perfect. But for a shift in the final six minutes of the third period Thursday night at Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals' second line looked like it had played together for much longer than two games.
Laich forced a turnover in the neutral zone to spring a two-on-one, where Semin had plenty of time to make a perfect pass to Arnott, whose one-timer proved the deciding tally in Washington's 3-2 win over the St. Louis Blues.
"We're creating a little chemistry, getting to know each other," said Arnott, whose goal marked his first as a Capital. "We were talking a lot on the bench and even with Sash [the usually quiet Semin], we're talking to him and he's talking to us. It's important to communicate to find out how guys are and little plays around the rink. If we keep that up hopefully our chemistry will keep going."
The veteran center's game-winner allowed the Capitals (35-20-10, 80 points) to pull within one point of both Southeast Division-leading Tampa Bay - which lost, 2-1, to Boston on Thursday - and Pittsburgh, which sits in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. It also represented Washington's first set of consecutive wins at home since late November and its first three game winning-streak since Dec. 26-Jan. 1.
Nicklas Backstrom and Scott Hannan also recorded goals for the Capitals, who came back from one-goal deficits twice against the Blues. Michael Neuvirth, playing his 39th game of the season, made 25 saves for his 21st victory, setting a new franchise record for wins in a season by a rookie goaltender. The previous mark of 20 victories was set by Bob Mason during the 1986-87 season.
Neuvirth had the opportunity to set that mark against St. Louis thanks largely to his teammates' adjustments and increased care with the puck in their own zone over the final 40 minutes. Washington allowed the Blues to pass freely to the center of the ice and gave up a multitude of odd-man rushes in the first period, including one resulting in a goal by Alexander Steen to give St. Louis a 1-0 lead about 11 1/2 minutes into the period.
The Capitals would show plenty of resolve from the outset of the second period, however, as well as greater dedication to their defensive obligations.
"In the first we allowed too many odd-man rushes," said Hannan, who snapped a personal 118-game goal-scoring drought. "We turned the puck over at the blue line a few times when we didn't have to. I thought we did a lot better job in the second and third of having a guy high and getting the puck in deep and working it from that."
Just more than three minutes into the second, Hannan recorded his first goal as a Capital and Washington's first tally from a defenseman in 18 games with a wrister to the high right corner after being set up by a nice pass from Alex Ovechkin.
The tie was short-lived. Barely two minutes later, John Erskine was unable to corral the puck at the offensive blue line. B.J. Crombeen was able to poke it free and outrace the Capitals defenseman down the wing. Crombeen snapped a shot past Neuvirth for a 2-1 St. Louis edge.
But Washington didn't back off. On the top line's next shift after Crombeen's tally, Ovechkin got the puck to Mike Knuble, who chipped it over a St. Louis stick, sending it bouncing toward the Blues' net. With the puck hovering in mid-air above the top of the crease, Nicklas Backstrom utilized his best baseball skills to swat it past St. Louis goaltender Ty Conklin and tie the score at 2. It was the third goal in a span of 3 minutes 40 seconds.
All four Washington lines were able to assert themselves and control play as the tied contest wore on. Finally, it was the second line, in its second outing with Arnott in the middle, that came through in the clutch. Arnott also had a key assist in his previous game.
"Our whole goal was to get it deep and work them down low, and I thought when we did it and we got the opportunities; we did a good job of it," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "When you're winning battles it all comes down in the end to one-on-one battles, and I think both teams really wanted the game and I think we really wanted it there."