SUNRISE, Fla. — Before Saturday’s game against the worst team in the Eastern Conference, Washington Capitals Coach Adam Oates cautioned his team against taking the opponent lightly. Regardless of the Florida Panthers’ place in the standings, this contest represented a valuable pair of points.
The Capitals didn’t squander the opportunity as Alex Ovechkin recorded his second hat trick of the season in the 4-3 victory. Florida scored three late goals but couldn’t come up with the equalizer in the third period as the Caps remained atop the Southeast Division.
The Capitals won for the seventh time in their past nine games, and stayed tied with Winnipeg, which won Saturday afternoon. Washington is tied in points (40) with the Jets but has played two fewer games.
Players need not be reminded how critical each game is with only 10 remaining in the regular season.
“We don’t have to say much. Everybody understand right now we can’t give up the points,” said Ovechkin, who was more concerned about Washington learning a lesson from letting the Panthers back in the game late. “We can’t play like that. It starts in locker room, just go there finish it up and play hard. We came out [poorly in the third] and that can’t happen.”
The Capitals’ latest triumph didn’t come without a loss — trade-deadline acquisition Martin Erat was injured in the first period and did not return.
With 5 minutes and 23 seconds remaining in the opening frame, Erat was driven into the boards by Florida defenseman Erik Gudbranson. Erat’s head slammed into the boards and his left leg and foot were contorted upon impact, making it difficult to determine the extent of his injuries. The Capitals would only describe Erat’s injury as lower body; Oates was unsure of how much time the winger might miss.
“Really hard to tell right now, [Washington’s head athletic trainer Greg Smith] didn’t think it was that bad. We’ll see in the morning.”
Erat appeared woozy when he was helped to the bench and, unable to put weight on his left foot, needed to be carried by Capitals athletic training and equipment staff to the dressing room. Gudbranson received a five-minute major for boarding, a game misconduct and he could receive additional discipline from the NHL’s department of player safety.
The injury to Erat strikes another blow to Washington’s left-wing depth. The Capitals were already without Brooks Laich, who suffered what the team will only describe as a lower-body injury in Thursday’s 2-1 shootout win over the Islanders and did not travel to Florida, Saturday night.
In this particular outing, however, the surge by Washington’s captain and potent power play – the unit went 3-for-5 in the victory -- was enough to keep the Panthers at bay.
After a sleepy start in a first period with little flow thanks to plenty of off-side calls and various other stoppages, it took the power play gained from Gudbranson’s hit on Erat to wake Washington.
The NHL’s top power play converted with 15:45 gone in the first when Mike Ribeiro found Ovechkin alone on a backdoor cut for an easy shot into the net with Panthers goaltender Jacob Markstrom (27 saves) caught on the other side of the crease.
Before the first period came to a close, Quinton Howden was whistled for holding Marcus Johansson and the nearly full power play to start the second paid dividends.
A point shot by Mike Green ricocheted off the post but then lay unprotected in the blue paint behind Markstrom where Ribeiro swatted the loose puck into the open net for a 2-0 lead just 43 seconds into the middle stanza.
“We had a lot of opportunities tonight and it definitely felt like we exposed their [penalty killing] unit,” Green said. “We tried to make sure that we were moving pucks well, Nick and Ribs made great passes and of course Ovi just needs to bury it.”
With 2:24 gone in the second, Ovechkin recorded his second goal. He carried the puck into the Florida zone and was met by veteran defenseman Filip Kuba, who poke checked the puck away in an attempt to neutralize the threat. Ovechkin managed to gain control of the puck again in the right circle and fired a bad-angle shot that made it 3-0.
Ovechkin’s third tally came on the power play with 5:38 remaining in the second period. This time it was Nicklas Backstrom working along the goal line near the right post and sent a smooth pass across the crease, past two Florida penalty killers and over to a waiting Ovechkin who snapped the puck easily into the net before Markstrom could react. Although the Caps were the visitors, several hats still rained down on the ice in homage to Ovechkin.
In the third, the Capitals acknowledged that they let up a little with a four-goal lead and allowed Florida back into the contest.
Tomas Kopecky ended Braden Holtby’s shutout bid with 6:45 gone in the final frame — Holtby finished with 27 saves in his 11th consecutive start — and Peter Mueller cut the Capitals’ lead to 4-2 with a power play goal less than two minutes later. With the goaltender pulled, Kopecky scored with 32. 7 seconds remaining in regulation to make it 4-3 but the Panthers couldn’t finish the comeback.
“We’ve got to keep doing what we did in the first 45 [minutes]. Get the puck deep, no chance plays, make sure you take care of that puck,” Backstrom said. “The first two periods was easier than we thought and we played good and then maybe we relax a little bit. It can’t happen in the future. The points is too important.”