It was bound to happen sometime. Even as they have trudged through a horrid start the Washington Capitals believed they would find their offensive rhythm and put a complete game together eventually. It turns out that the perfect recipe was hosting a familiar foe they have recently dominated, and doing it on the day after holding a players-only meeting.
“It’s only one win, obviously we needed [it],” Capitals Coach Adam Oates said. “They get tomorrow off and then Monday we’ve got to go back to work. We play [Florida] again Tuesday and the games keep coming. Enjoy the moment and then get back to work.”
Goaltender Braden Holtby made key stops early and finished with 27 saves in the fourth shutout of his career, and his teammates provided ample support. The Capitals gave up only a handful of scoring chances and four players — Troy Brouwer twice, Joel Ward, Alex Ovechkin and Mathieu Perreault — scored to keep growing an initial first-period lead and chase Florida starter Jose Theodore from the opposing net.
That the thorough performance followed a meeting in which players “cleared the air” following the ugly 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday and addressed what they expect out of each other is no coincidence.
“I think the time right now we just have to turn around. And that kind of game we need,” said Ovechkin, who recorded his first even-strength goal of the season. “Everybody was so focused today, like, we have a meeting for the guys and we just said, like, ‘Be focused, bring energy and do what you have to do best.’ It works and it starts with our goaltending and it starts with “D” and the forwards.”
It was a sleepy start in the first period by both teams as they traded turnovers with few quality opportunities. Arguably Florida’s best scoring chance of the night came less than nine minutes into the opening frame with the game still scoreless when Kris Versteeg raced down the right side on a two-on-one. He kept the puck for a shot that Holtby calmly snared in his glove for a save that Oates credited as crucial for Washington’s confidence.
“Great for Braden. He made the big save early for us, what we needed,” Oates said. “After that we didn’t give them much and scored some goals.”
With 17 minutes 45 seconds gone in the first Brouwer redirected a shot by John Carlson past Theodore, who stopped only 16 of the 21 shots he faced before being pulled in the third period, for a 1-0 edge. An early lead hasn’t been enough for the Capitals at all this season, as they had yet to win a game in which they scored first prior to Saturday’s victory, and the players knew they needed to build on the start.
Early in the second when Panthers tough guy George Parros went off for interference, the Capitals made it 2-0. Holtby, who never shies away from handling the puck, caught Florida in a line change and sent a silky smooth saucer pass up to Brouwer on the offensive blue line. Brouwer carried the puck in and boomed a slap shot into the top left corner 3:36 into the second.
Washington added a rare insurance goal for its first three-goal lead of the season 11:55 into the middle stanza when a new-look third line managed to cash in after a strong shift. Eric Fehr worked the puck along the boards to Perreault, who sent the puck to Ward in the left circle. Ward stretched and fired a shot past a Panthers defender and beat Theodore blocker side to make it 3-0 and record his fifth goal of the season.
“I thought we came up short a few games where we [were] kind of up by two and can’t push for that third and let teams back in,” Ward said. “We just kind of kept building on” the initial lead.
Just a day earlier, General Manager George McPhee acknowledged that the team has struggled to close out its opponents. The luxury of a three-goal lead allows the Capitals to take some pressure off themselves and focus on continuing to execute properly rather than worrying about trying to force offensive plays.
Washington continued to play with confidence and flow in the third period as all four lines kept the momentum moving forward, dominating puck possession and not allowing the Panthers any opportunity to get back in the game.
“I really thought tonight we had a really good rhythm for the whole game,” Oates said. “We’ve had it at times, but tonight I felt comfortable just keep rolling [the lines] over.”
Ovechkin ripped a shot off a faceoff win by Mike Ribeiro 3:49 into the final frame for a 4-0 lead but the scoring didn’t end there. Just before the half-way point of the third, Perreault chased down a rebound from a shot by Jeff Schultz to record his first goal of the season and give the Capitals a 5-0 lead.
The blowout win may have been the type of victory the Capitals needed for a fresh start but the true test will lie in whether they can build off it during a three-game road trip this week.
“I think any win at this point is what we’re looking for. Anything less is unacceptable,” Holtby said. “We already gave ourselves a big enough hole with being complacent, and right now we’re not going to step off the gas the rest of the year.”