BOSTON — The Washington Capitals viewed the final stretch of the regular season as a fresh start, a chance to control their fate in the ever-tightening Eastern Conference playoff picture. In their first two games since the Olympic break, they have taken advantage of the opportunity.
Alex Ovechkin scored a pair of power-play goals to become the second player in franchise history to hit the 800-point plateau for his career. While they nearly lost control of a multi-goal lead for the second time in as many games, the Capitals gutted out a win through timely defensive stands and opportunistic offense from Joel Ward and Eric Fehr.
“Right now the guys have a desperate will to win,” said Fehr, whose breakaway goal 10 minutes 53 seconds into the third period accounted for the final margin and effectively crushed the Bruins’ comeback efforts. “We know where we’re at in the standings, and we know how important this month is. You can see it in the way we’re playing, We’re playing a little bit more desperate hockey.”
The challenges facing the Capitals this month, during which they will play 15 games — all against teams still vying for a playoff spot — were clear in the early stages at TD Garden. The Bruins poked the puck off their sticks, picked off passes and made navigating a path through the neutral zone a difficult puzzle.
The Capitals found themselves in trouble less than seven minutes into the contest when Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson were whistled for high sticking Milan Lucic and holding Torey Krug, respectively, on the same shift, giving Boston a two-minute, five-on-three power play.
The penalty killers shined, cutting down shooting lanes and using well-placed clearing attempts to allow the Bruins only one shot on goal against Braden Holtby during the advantage.
“It was a great kill. It wasn’t a fluke. We made a lot of huge plays,” said Holtby, who made 36 saves and has been in net for each of the four victories on this streak. “I didn’t know it was a five-on-three until I looked up at the faceoff. I just assumed it was a five-on-four. The guys did a great job.”
With less than two minutes remaining in the opening frame, the Capitals caught a break when Chris Kelly was whistled for interference after sending Jason Chimera into the Bruins’ bench. Ovechkin scored his first goal of the afternoon from his familiar spot in the left circle on the ensuing power play, giving Washington a 1-0 lead with 1:21 to go in the first.
The Capitals used the same formula at the start of the second period.
On a rush up ice, Marcus Johansson, playing in his first game back after the Olympic break, sent a pretty drop pass to Ovechkin, who blasted a one-timer into the upper-right corner of the net for a 2-0 advantage.
That goal was Ovechkin’s 800th point, making him the 150th player in NHL history to reach the milestone and the second Capitals player after Peter Bondra, who owns the franchise points record with 825. But Ovechkin was more concerned about the two points the team secured Saturday afternoon.
“We just play more solid right now,” Ovechkin said. “We know we don’t have time to make mistakes. Every point right now is very important for us. That’s big two points.”
Midway through the second, Joel Ward split the Bruins’ defense, skating in for a pretty backhander that beat Tuukka Rask for a 3-0 lead. The goal, his 18th, marked a career high for the big winger.
But protecting a lead never seems to come easily for Washington.
Chimera took a tripping penalty 24 seconds after Ward’s goal, and Patrice Bergeron put the Bruins on the scoreboard during the resulting power play.
Less than seven minutes later, Boston’s fourth line converted when Shawn Thornton’s centering pass was inadvertently redirected past Holtby by Mike Green to make it 3-2.
The Capitals handled Boston’s push in the third period well, though, and began winning battles along the boards and chipping the puck up ice to clear the zone — plays that didn’t come as easily two periods earlier.
One such effort along the half wall wound up providing the insurance goal Washington needed. Fehr outworked Bergeron to push the puck into the neutral zone and sprung himself on a breakaway for the visitors’ fourth goal.
“We always felt good as a group; we just had some lapses during games,” Ward said. “We’re still confident in ourselves. We just missed a little bit of swagger at times this year, and I think we’re slowly getting that back. Guys are realizing what’s at stake a little bit more, playing a little more desperate at times, and it seemed to show.”
Capitals note: Martin Erat sat out with a lower-body injury after being injured when he blocked a slap shot against Florida on Thursday.