“Next game,” Ovechkin said later.
The night ended with him one goal short of 50, but he provided the game-winning score in the Capitals’ 4-1 win over the Hurricanes. Tuesday’s game was the first of a home-and-home set between Washington and Carolina — the two teams are set to play each other again in Raleigh, N.C., on Thursday — and it could a late-season preview of a first-round playoff series.
The Hurricanes sit in the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card spot and are poised to make the postseason for the first time in a decade. The Capitals’ win extended their lead in the Metropolitan Division to three points with five games to play.
“We don’t care too much about the standings,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “We’re focused on trying to win a game, so we’re not letting anything get in our head, saying we must win this or that or whatever. It’s been one of our strengths these last couple of years, that we know what we have to do to win and we just go out and accomplish it and get better as a team.”
Perhaps this game lacked the intensity of the postseason, but it was predictably tight and was tied at 1 through two periods. It had been a particularly frustrating 40 minutes for Ovechkin, who had four of his shots turned away by Carolina’s Petr Mrazek. Ovechkin hadn’t scored in the four games before Tuesday’s, and while Mrazek had made some good saves against him, Ovechkin looked a little disjointed at other moments, flubbing one shot and watching two passes slide by him.
But less than five minutes into the third period, center Evgeny Kuznetsov quickly carried the puck up the ice before passing it up to winger Tom Wilson on a three-on-two rush. Wilson set up Ovechkin’s goal from the high slot at the 4:31 mark, and with that 656th goal of Ovechkin’s career, he tied Brendan Shanahan for 13th on the league’s all-time list. Should Ovechkin score a 50th goal in one of Washington’s final five games this season, he will be just the fourth player to score at least 50 goals at age 33 or older.
“I have lots of chances to score tonight, but finally I get one because I think last couple games I didn’t use my chances,” Ovechkin said. “It was important goal, and I’m happy with the win.”
Defenseman John Carlson’s goal 11:16 into the third period, courtesy of a Dmitry Orlov slap pass, gave the Capitals a two-goal cushion. Holtby finished with 27 saves, and he has allowed just four goals in his past three starts.
“I thought it was a strong team game for us, one of our better ones overall in terms of getting everybody’s committed game defensively, especially,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “Then when we got our chances, our top guys were able to convert and that’s always a nice advantage to have.”
Fans at Capital One Arena had received Kuznetsov’s bobblehead before the game and he was flying from the start, finishing with three assists. He has had an uneven season, looking like the Capitals’ best player for stretches and a liability for others. Kuznetsov was the leading scorer in Washington’s Stanley Cup run with 12 goals and 20 assists in 24 postseason games, and the Capitals have been anxious for his game to get back to that level.
In the first period against the Hurricanes, Kuznetsov started to carry the puck around the back of Carolina’s net before threading a slick cross-crease feed to T.J. Oshie, who fired into a half-open net for the game’s first goal and his 23rd of the season. The Hurricanes tied the score 15:38 into the second period with a Dougie Hamilton blast from the point during a delayed penalty, but then Kuznetsov helped set up Ovechkin’s and Carlson’s goals.
“Bobblehead is special,” Kuznetsov said. “Of course when your organization does something for you and fans cheering for you, you want to give them back something. The best thing we give them [was] the win.”
Said Holtby: “He’s playing really well, and we need him to play well in order to have success. We need everyone right now, and with the talent he can bring, pretty soon we’ll need it every night. He gets up for these games, this time of year. It’s exciting to watch.”
After Carolina pulled Mrazek for an extra attacker in the final minutes of the game, the crowd again chanted for Ovechkin. He assisted on Nicklas Backstrom’s empty-net goal instead.
“It would be nice to get it,” Ovechkin said, “but we still have five games.”