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Alex Ovechkin scores twice in a wild first period, and the Capitals hold off Minnesota, 4-3

From left, the Capitals' Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin celebrate Wilson’s goal early in the third period Sunday night at Minnesota. (Hannah Foslien/AP)

ST. PAUL, Minn. — It began as a physical, chippy, back-and-forth affair Sunday night at Xcel Energy Center. With the Minnesota Wild desperately clawing for a playoff spot and the Washington Capitals still trying to piece their game back together after a slump, the teams were charged from the drop of the puck.

An electric first period yielded five goals, plenty more scoring opportunities and a fight, and the intensity only increased from there. Ultimately, the Capitals came out with a 4-3 victory for their third win in four games, and they exited with chants of "Ovi!" ringing in their ears from the scattered splashes of red in the crowd.

With two first-period goals on his way to a three-point night, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin led the way. It was his seventh game with at least three points this season, and he recorded his first assist since Jan. 29. He has 45 goals in 64 games after notching his 12th multigoal game of the season. And in his past five games at Minnesota, he has 15 points (nine goals, six assists).

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“I just think the guys get emotional here because a lot of [the Capitals’ players] are from here and you can feel it in the locker room,” Ovechkin said. “Everybody gets excited.”

After a scoreless second period, Tom Wilson’s snipe 40 seconds into the third gave the Capitals a 4-2 edge. He has 21 goals on the season, including four in his past six games, and he is one away from tying his career high, set last season. Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) made a smart play on the wall and dished the puck to Ovechkin, who set up Wilson for the quick score.

“It’s a great play from ‘O.’ I think it shows what type of teammate he is,” Wilson said. “He has the puck right in the slot, chance for a hat trick, and he dishes it off.”

Zach Parise’s power-play goal in front at 12:53 got Minnesota back within one — defenseman Michal Kempny was called for the interference penalty that provided the man advantage — but the Wild could not find the equalizer.

Sunday’s victory was crucial for Washington (40-19-6) after it was blanked, 3-0, at Winnipeg on Thursday. The Capitals (86 points), who snapped a four-game road losing streak, have a three-point cushion over the Philadelphia Flyers in the Metropolitan Division ahead of their clash Wednesday at Capital One Arena.

“I just liked the physicality. I liked the compete,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “I liked our guys sticking together in scrums, and I liked that stuff of our game in terms of building our group.”

With key games looming and playoff seedings in the balance, the Capitals got off to a spirited start — but only after the Wild struck first. Minnesota’s Ryan Donato slipped behind Washington’s defense and accepted a stretch pass. He lost control of the puck on his initial run at Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, but he managed to corral it behind the net and bank it off Holtby’s skate and into the net at 3:01.

“Yeah, it was a hard one,” said Holtby, who was solid again with 37 saves. “They worked hard. Really hard. . . . It’s a good challenge. Good, hard-fought game. We’ll take the two points, but they don’t come easy.”

It didn’t take long for the Capitals to respond. Ovechkin’s first goal came at 7:21 from his “office” in the left faceoff circle on a five-on-three power play. The Capitals had failed to generate many chances before Ovechkin’s snipe whizzed past Wild goaltender Alex Stalock (26 saves), but his goal was enough to start Washington’s push.

About three minutes later, the Capitals took control with two goals in 31 seconds. Richard Panik scored off the rush at 10:28, his eighth goal of the season. Then, off a tic-tac-toe pass from Ilya Kovalchuk to Kuznetsov to Ovechkin, the captain scored again at 10:59. That gave the Capitals three goals in 3:38 and provided Kovalchuk’s first point with the team.

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“I wasn’t sure how it was going to go,” Reirden said of playing the three Russian forwards together for a handful of shifts. “I’ve done some research on this one. They haven’t played a lot together with the national team or anything, so that is something I wanted to see a little bit and we will see moving forward — just some different combinations that I think can keep the opposition on their heels.”

Ovechkin has 703 career goals and is six away from passing Mike Gartner for seventh on the NHL’s all-time list. His two tallies also pushed him past Jaromir Jagr (355) for the third-most goals on the road (356). Only Wayne Gretzky (402) and Steve Yzerman (362) had more.

The Wild cut Washington’s lead to 3-2 on a power-play goal from Kevin Fiala at 13:13 of the first, and the game turned chippy in the period’s final moments. After Kovalchuk felt as if he was being clipped in the crease, he took a few swings at the Wild’s Matt Dumba. Capitals defenseman Brenden Dillon came to Kovalchuk’s aid and dropped the gloves with Ryan Hartman. It was Dillon’s first fight with the Capitals; his tussle with Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin last month only earned him a double minor for roughing.

Kovalchuk was tagged with a double minor, giving Minnesota a power play that bled into the second period, but the Capitals kept the Wild at bay and eventually headed home 1-1 on their brief road trip.

“You can drop all the plays you want and show all the video you want,” Reirden said, “but when guys care for each other and they want to take care of their teammate, that is when you got something that you can build on. So that was a real positive for me tonight.”

More on the Capitals:

Michal Kempny looks to find his game as he navigates a rough stretch

Capitals leaning on veteran experience in an increasingly lighthearted room

Sunday’s scores from around the NHL