“I think it was the worst I play in my career,” Ovechkin said Monday.
With both the captain and his Capitals in desperate need of a bounce-back performance Monday afternoon against the Sabres, Washington beat Buffalo, 3-2, and Ovechkin set the tone. He battled with Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen after Ristolainen caught Ovechkin with an elbow in the first period, then scored the first goal of the game early in the second.
“Sometimes when you wake the bear up, sometimes when you poke him a little bit, he goes,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said.
After Ovechkin broke the ice, the Capitals maintained the lead from there. Washington stumbled in the third period, when goaltender Philipp Grubauer was pelted with 17 pucks and surrendered two goals, but an empty-net tally from Evgeny Kuznetsov assured the result. The win has Washington back in first place in the Metropolitan Division, and the Capitals (75 points) have played two fewer games than the second-place Pittsburgh Penguins (74).
“The top players, they always want to do well,” Trotz said. “He wants to get shots on net. He does. [Saturday night] was a rarity.”
Ovechkin registered a shot on goal less than a minute into Monday’s game. He wasn’t shy about launching pucks for the rest of the afternoon, either — three were on goal, and five more missed — but with the game still scoreless in the second period, Ovechkin made his mark off someone else’s shot: He raised his stick blade to tip a puck from defenseman Christian Djoos and score his league-leading 35th goal of the season 1:18 into the period.
Ovechkin has 25 goals at even strength, nine more than he had all of last season, and he is just the 12th player in NHL history to score at least 35 goals 10 times in his career.
“I don’t think it’s something special,” Ovechkin said. “I just try to do my best. I think it was a response after we lost.”
More than 13 minutes into the period, Capitals defenseman John Carlson was behind the cage when he pushed the puck through the small space between Sabres goaltender Chad Johnson and the goal post. The disk slid across the blue paint, and though Buffalo’s Kyle Okposo seemed to make an impressive kick-save at first, a video review showed the puck crossed the goal line. Carlson’s 11th goal of the season lifted Washington to a 2-0 lead through two periods — a marked improvement from Saturday night, when it allowed six goals in the first 40 minutes.
“We had a good meeting [Sunday],” said forward T.J. Oshie, who assisted on Carlson’s goal. “I think we touched on a bunch of stuff, as far as mentality, how we want to play the game. . . . It was just more about how we want to play the game and how determined we want to play it. I thought tonight was a good bounce-back game for us, and I thought we responded really well.”
Coming off Saturday’s 7-1 loss to the Blackhawks, the Capitals made a move to address their leaky defense before Monday’s Presidents’ Day matinee. Washington traded a 2018 third-round draft pick to Chicago for 27-year-old defenseman Michal Kempny, and it’s possible he will make his Capitals debut Tuesday night against the Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning in Capital One Arena. Kempny had one goal and six assists in 31 games with the Blackhawks this season.
Acquiring a defenseman seemed to be the priority for the Capitals considering how the past month has unfolded. Washington was 5-4-4 in its previous 13 games entering Monday, and the Capitals had allowed 3.62 goals per game in that span, the second-most in the NHL. A team that surrendered fewer than 28 shots per game a season ago has averaged nearly 33 shots against per game this season.
“I talked to [Kempny] today, just welcoming him to the team,” Trotz said. “I told him we’re not as bad as he saw in Chicago. He was really happy about that.”
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