Upon seeing the puck bounce off Minnesota goaltender Devan Dubnyk, Alex Ovechkin let his head drop back in frustration. Two nights earlier, when his goal-scoring drought reached a career high of 10 games, Ovechkin said he was waiting for “a miracle or something” to score again.
It was only a matter of time, and just as a power play expired Tuesday night, Ovechkin flubbed a shot from his sweet spot in the left faceoff circle. With traffic in front of Dubnyk, the puck got past the goalie and Ovechkin didn’t even lift an arm in celebration, subtly appreciating his miracle in the Washington Capitals’ 4-2 win over the Wild, one of the Western Conference’s top teams this season.
“It was a muffin, so he was surprised it got in,” Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom cracked.
“It was not perfect shot, but sometimes I have pretty good opportunities before and it didn’t go in,” Ovechkin said. “It’ll turn around very quickly if I’m going to get that kind of goal.”
The goal wasn’t the classic thunderous one-timer that Ovechkin is known for, but it was a fitting reward for a dominant performance Tuesday night. Ovechkin was on the ice for three of the Capitals’ goals; he was a screen on Nate Schmidt’s goal, he scored the second one of the game, and he drew the penalty that led to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s power-play goal at the end of the second period.
“I know he’s a goal scorer, and I’m sure he gets a little confidence from that goal,” Backstrom said of Ovechkin. “After the goal, you could really tell he got a little confidence and was skating well, and he challenged their [defensemen] a lot, so that was fun to see.”
Ovechkin’s night highlighted a strong performance by the team’s top players, something the Capitals had been lacking during the four-game skid they had entering the game. Backstrom had a three-assist night to give him 50 assists in a season for the seventh time in his career. In a matchup of two of the league’s top goaltenders, Braden Holtby outdueled Dubnyk by making 30 saves.
By snapping its losing streak, Washington moved two points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
“It was a bit of a wake-up call for us, and it’s good,” Holtby said. “I said before it was going to show what kind of character we had in this group, and this is a good start for that. But it’s one game, and we move on. In order to be successful you’ve got to be consistent, and now our focus shifts to next game.”
When the Capitals lost in Anaheim on Sunday night to finish their three-game California trip with no points, the doors to their dressing room stayed closed for roughly 15 minutes after the game as the team had a meeting. The four-game streak of regulation losses was Washington’s first since November 2014, and it had allowed the Penguins to tie the Capitals for first place in the division with an overtime loss Monday night.
With the team struggling last week, Ovechkin’s scoring slump was spotlighted even more. His production was already down this season, with Tuesday night’s goal being just his 28th — significantly off his 50-goal pace from a year ago.
“A lot is made of him not scoring the last little while, but I’ll tell you what, he’s playing pretty good hockey,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s skating really well. He’s becoming a force again, and when he’s becoming a force, then you know those goals are going to come. He’s doing a lot of good things right now. I don’t think he needs to change anything. He’s got to get a couple to find the back of the net, and then you’ll see Ovi might get 20 in the next 10 games. That’s what he’s capable of.”
Ovechkin’s dry spell was far from the only thing plaguing Washington during its losing streak. The Capitals have taken more minor penalties than any team in the league since Jan. 1, including six in each of the previous two games. That issue didn’t get solved Tuesday, and Minnesota was able to mount a rally from a three-goal deficit and get within one thanks to an Eric Staal power-play goal. Washington took seven minor penalties against the Wild.
But with less than six minutes left, Jay Beagle’s goal provided the Capitals some much-needed insurance and ensured Washington’s losing streak wouldn’t get to five games.
“I trust this group,” Trotz said, “and they responded.”