The first goal was a relief, Nicklas Backstrom’s 21-game drought finally over after he completed a tic-tac-toe passing sequence. The second goal was a surprise, Tom Wilson’s shot off the faceoff one that Chicago’s Anton Forsberg probably shouldn’t have allowed. The third goal was just showing off, Alex Ovechkin driving the net and punching in the rebound from Wilson’s shot.
That capped Washington’s first-line offensive outburst, a goal from each member in a 3:28 span in the first period. Forsberg was yanked from net in favor of Jean-Francois Berube, and the Capitals rolled to a 6-2 win over the Blackhawks at Capital One Arena.
“It was a very good night for them,” Coach Barry Trotz said of his top trio. “I thought they came out with a pretty good focus. I thought they played quick and they played heavy, and they sort of took the game over. . . . That line carried us tonight.”
Washington (17-11-1), which has won six of its past seven, extended its winning streak to three games and is just one point out of first place in the Metropolitan Division. On Wednesday night, the Capitals did it without top-six forward T.J. Oshie, missing his first game with an undisclosed upper-body injury suffered Monday against the San Jose Sharks. The top line’s scoring onslaught gave Washington a comfortable 3-0 lead to work with, and goaltender Braden Holtby made a whopping 37 saves to keep the Blackhawks at bay.
This successful stretch for the Capitals has coincided with the team’s longest homestand of the season and the reunion of Ovechkin and Backstrom. Though the two have complemented each other for more than a decade in Washington, Trotz started the season with them on separate lines. As both settled into scoring slumps two weeks ago, Trotz reconfigured his forward trios to have Ovechkin and Backstrom skating beside each other again. Their new linemate was a surprising choice in Wilson, who has never scored more than seven goals in a season.
The lineup tweak worked wonders. Since reuniting with Backstrom, Ovechkin has eight goals in seven games, riding his best goal-scoring pace since the 2007-08 season, when he scored 65 as a 22-year-old. Though Backstrom has steadily been accumulating assists, he entered Wednesday night’s game without a goal since Oct. 14, Washington’s sixth game of the season. Two games away from tying his career-worst goal drought of 23 games, Backstrom swatted in Ovechkin’s cross-crease feed 11:54 into Wednesday’s game for his fourth goal of the season.
“Me and Tom had a chat today and said, ‘Let’s set up Backy,’ ” Ovechkin said. “And we did and he scored a goal.”
“It obviously feels good,” Backstrom said. “But I haven’t really been thinking about it too much, even if I probably should be thinking about it a lot more.”
The last time Wilson had this extended of a stretch playing alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom was in November 2014. It was just his second season in the NHL, and perhaps he wasn’t ready, occupying a bottom-six role for most of his career. Though Wilson has maintained a physical style of play, it has become more refined. He’s Washington’s best at drawing penalties. His hard hits create space for Ovechkin and Backstrom in the offensive zone. Playing against the opponent’s top forwards and defensemen, Wilson can win board battles and finish his checks to force turnovers and wear down the opposition.
“He is starting to realize how he has to play, especially with a center like” Backstrom, Ovechkin said. “He just does his job, play physical, stay real calm with the puck and try to make offense.”
Said Holtby: “You look at a lot of really good lines, there’s usually that guy doing the hard work, the gritty work, keeping pucks alive in the corners and playing well in the [defensive] zone to create transition. He’s doing that. . . . I think he’s coming into his own as a player, not just a talent. He’s figuring out how to create offense at the same time as being very responsible defensively.”
Less than three minutes after Backstrom snapped his goal drought, Wilson followed suit. His shot off a faceoff beat Forsberg short side for his third goal of the season and a first in 15 games. It was a soft goal to give up for Forsberg, pressed into duty because top goaltender Corey Crawford is on injured reserve with an undisclosed “lower-body” injury.
On the next shift, Wilson sped toward the net, and Forsberg saved the shot with his pad, but Ovechkin had been trailing behind to score on the rebound. That marked his NHL-best 21st goal. Ovechkin added an assist to his total when he set up Brett Connolly’s power-play goal in the second period, and then he tallied one more with his primary helper on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s third-period goal.
Wilson later added a shorthanded empty-net goal with 2:20 left in the game for the first four-point night of his career. Ovechkin also finished with four points, while Backstrom recorded three.
“Obviously, we haven’t been scoring three-, four-point nights every night, but I feel like we’re getting better and better every day,” Backstrom said. “Still, we have a lot of things to improve, but right now we’re all right. So hopefully we can just build off this.”