SUNRISE, Fla. – By the end, when the dust had settled on NHL’s longest shootout ever and the visitors had begun reconciling a loss with the thrill of making history, the box score looked like the love note of an overzealous middle-schooler.
For the Washington Capitals: XXXOXXOXXOOXXXXXOXXX
For the Florida Panthers: XXXOXXOXXOOXXXXXOXXO
That last circle made the difference for Florida in a 2-1 win, when forward Nick Bjugstad whipped the deciding puck into the top shelf past goaltender Braden Holtby in the 20th round, but the insanity of Tuesday night masked another tight game between these two teams, the fourth time in five games they needed a shootout to judge who would escape with a victory perhaps both teams earned.
“You just sort of lived in the moment and hoped you got the two points,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “Unfortunately we didn’t. We had it a few times and they were able to bounce right back … I thought both teams didn’t give up much. Both teams probably deserved to get two points and unfortunately that’s not the case with our rule. We would’ve loved to get the second point. We could claim it as much as them. It was a very tight game.”
That type of stingy effort, in fact, had allowed Florida to exceed expectations early into 2014-15, reaching its NHL-leading 21st one-goal game by clogging the neutral zone and holding the Capitals to 24 shots, their fewest since Nov. 20. It also happened to be Washington’s first shootout since Oct. 18 when, fittingly enough, it topped the Panthers, 2-1, at Verizon Center.
“That’s what they’ve turned into,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “They’re stingy without the puck. They work really hard and have pretty good structure. They’ve got some guys that can go and pressure you all over the rink. Wasn’t an easy game by any means. They’ve been going good now since they had a rough start, pretty good team now.”
Inside the visiting locker room, Niskanen couldn’t help but smile. He had climbed over the boards in the 16th round, the third-to-last player Trotz could summon before repeating skaters. Of course, Niskanen said, the Capitals would have loved to earn an extra standings point, to win their fifth in six games and begin another three-game road trip with more joy.
“I don’t know,” he said, “it was really fun.”
These were words few at BB&T Center could justify when the shootout began, after Washington and Florida had slogged through 65 minutes, the night lasting so long that some needed to choose between seeing lethargy to its conclusion or catching the first “Road to the Winter Classic” episode when it began at 10 p.m.
Lulled to sleep in the NHL’s least-attended building, where swaths of the upper sections were covered with black signs that read, “Party City,” the Capitals entered the first intermission behind 1-0 on a costly turnover from defenseman Mike Green.
Chasing the puck behind Washington’s net, Green anticipated an oncoming check from winger Scottie Upshall and tried to slide a pass along the boards. Instead, it ricocheted on a direct angle toward the middle, where center Derek MacKenzie waited with a quick wrist shot. Upshall’s check had already cracked Green’s stick where the shaft met the blade, so as the puck bounced out from the net, Green finished the job in frustration.
It marked the 14th time this season the Capitals trailed first and their 1-9-3 record in such situations ranked worst in the league. But this was also unfamiliar territory, at least this month. Since losing to Vancouver at home on Dec. 2, the last game before surging to a 4-0-1 stretch, Washington hadn’t trailed in regulation until Green’s gaffe.
“Guys were creating opportunities and having good chances, but we didn’t have too many second and third opportunities,” forward Troy Brouwer, who later tied the game on the power play, told reporters. “I thought we were pretty solid. We didn’t give them a whole lot, but we still needed to play with more speed, get pucks out of our zone quicker, and our execution needed to be better tonight.”
The Capitals kept skirting disaster, killing an offensive-zone interference penalty from Jason Chimera and a slashing on Brooks Orpik, caused because he turned the puck over near the defensive blue line. They also survived a scare with forward Brooks Laich, who appeared to injure his right leg but never missed a shift.
With just three shots in the third period – and none until Alex Ovechkin fired one around nine minutes in – Washington hardly threatened Luongo, and both sides only mustered two attempts in overtime, which Florida had reached for the third straight game.
“When you see a team go to overtime that many times, you know they’re playing a tight game,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “You can tell. I don’t know if they’ve got confidence in themselves now that they believe they can win, because they have a pretty good lineup when you look at it, at least that’s what we think. They were a tough challenge. We hung on there. I thought both teams played pretty well.”