The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tom Wilson’s success, Alex Ovechkin’s goal, Nicklas Backstrom’s assists obscured in loss

Tom Wilson, center, celebrates his first goal of the season, in happier times (AP Photo/Alex Brandon).

The Washington Capitals marched into Sunday night’s first intermission feeling strong about themselves, following a dominant period against a struggling team, and if the game had ended there, everything would have been fine.

“We came out with good intention and capitalized on some opportunities,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “We talked about the second period, what we need to do a little bit better.”

The optimism was justified, and had what followed – five unanswered Arizona goals, four straight losses, a players-only, soul-searching meeting – not occurred, or even been salvaged, the Capitals might have entered their off-day with plenty to cheer. Of course, nothing but big-picture rhetoric dominated their postgame talk, because a 6-5 defeat felt at once emblematic of past troubles and ominous over what might come.

Of course, all that happened after the opening frame, when Alex Ovechkin shook aside his goal drought, Nicklas Backstrom recorded three assists and the franchise’s future unmasked itself in the form of the baby-faced, slick-haired, still-can’t-legally-buy-alcohol forward Tom Wilson. So here are the matters that got obscured:

>> Last week, Trotz speculated whether Wilson would skate both ends of the weekend back-to-back, still adjusting to NHL speed after offseason ankle surgery. Rather than waste the strenuous opportunity, he kept Wilson in the lineup, still on the fourth line. Wilson responded by scoring his first goal of the season, earning a career-high 15 minutes, 4 seconds, justifying a bump to the top line and finishing within a fight of a Gordie Howe hat trick, though not for lack of chances.

Down 1-0 after Antoine Vermette’s early goal, Wilson boxed out a Coyotes defenseman, back to the crease, and redirected Ovechkin’s shot through his legs. It was the 20-year-old’s first goal since March 13 and summoned glimpses of what Trotz envisioned this summer when he first assumed the job: a top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Wilson, with Wilson playing the spunky role of Boston’s Milan Lucic.

“That was my intention, but obviously the injury has stalled that,” Trotz said in late October. “My vision for him is to be a top-six forward with a bite. I think Tom Wilson for him to be an effective player, he’s got to have some bite in his game. Everybody knows that he can throw them when he has to, but he can also play too.

“There’s not that many guys who have that nice combination, the Milan Lucic type guys that get you 20 goals, 20-some goals and are hard to play against, can play the game the way anybody wants. If you want to get them into a real physical battle, a grind battle, he’s oaky with that. If you want to play a skill game, he’s okay with that too. When I look at Tom, he can go into that sort of category. I wouldn’t say he’s exactly like Lucic, but he can be in that category.”

Witness, then, the potential. Later that period, Wilson achieved the rare feat of tallying a point without being on the ice. His shift over, on the way to the bench, Wilson flared one last stick at center Sam Gagner near Arizona’s blue line, just to see what would happen. The puck poked loose. Wilson looked back, then returned to the bench. Behind him, Backstrom executed a perfect give-and-go with defenseman John Carlson.

Wilson later drew two roughing penalties – both mutual with Coyotes – getting mixed up in the scrappiness several players later thought contributed to their unraveling. But he earned valuable time on Washington’s top line, skating 13 shifts with Ovechkin and Backstrom.

>> It happened in garbage time, too late for the Capitals to even offer proper celebration, and two penalties and a costly defensive zone turnover overshadowed the milestone, but Alex Ovechkin tied Peter Bondra’s franchise points record with 825. He finished Sunday night with four points, including three primary assists, and reached the mark with 27 seconds left.

Among active points leaders, Ovechkin currently ranks 12th – Shane Doan, who scored twice against the Capitals, is 10th – and among the top 15, is the only one under 34 years old. His four-point game was the 18th of his career and first at Verizon Center since Dec. 10, 2013.

Ovechkin’s power-play goal late in the first period, a perfect one-timer fed to his tape from defenseman Mike Green, broke a six-game goal drought, the longest of his career.

>> According to the Capitals, Backstrom’s three first-period assists – the “Backtrick,” as some fans called it – was his 27th career three-assist game and the ninth time he’s accumulated three in one period. He now sits alone at fourth place on Washington’s career assists list at 376, one ahead of Dale Hunter.

>> Center Andre Burakovsky received just 7 minutes, 42 seconds of ice time, dumped onto the fourth line to accommodate Wilson’s promotion. The 19-year-old hadn’t dipped below 10 minutes all season and still is tied for third among NHL rookies with eight points.

The Capitals allowed six power plays Sunday night, a season high, which would somewhat account for Burakovsky’s dip in deployment.