SUNRISE, Fla. — As they prepared to resume their season Thursday night after a 19-day Olympic break, the Washington Capitals knew they couldn’t afford to leave points on the table against teams like Florida, owners of the third-worst record in the NHL. The Capitals frittered away a two-goal lead in the third period, but Alex Ovechkin made sure the close call wouldn’t be costly.
Ovechkin’s goal with 4 minutes 17 seconds remaining off a two-on-one feed from Brooks Laich secured a pair of crucial points in the tight Eastern Conference playoff race for the Capitals in a 5-4 win on the road.
The game-winner marked his 41st goal of the year and third point of the night, assuaging concerns there might be lingering doldrums from his disappointing showing at the Sochi Games.
“It’s always important when you score the goals because you’re going to feel great next day and next game,” Ovechkin said. But the captain — and just about the entire locker room — acknowledged after the game that the Capitals need to clean up their errors.
Even if it was far from the way they would draw up a victory, coughing up a pair of two-goal leads, Coach Adam Oates was glad to see Washington fight for a victory.
“We figured out a way to win, which is what we talked about this morning,” Oates said. “We did a lot of good things in the game. It was also the first game back from the [Olympic break], so there were some good moments, some sloppy, but hey it’s a win.”
While Washington managed to kick off the season’s final stretch on a positive note, the roster may have suffered structural damage.
Mikhail Grabovski, playing in his first game after missing eight prior to the Olympic break with a sprained left ankle, left the game with seven minutes remaining in the first period and did not return after apparently tweaking his ankle when Florida’s Nick Bjugstad fell on him. The veteran center skated only 2:20 in the contest.
Washington took an early lead on the game’s first power play, exploiting a Panthers penalty kill that entered the contest ranked last in the NHL.
Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich set up a net-front presence on the power play. With both big forwards drawing attention in the slot, John Carlson put a point shot on net. Brouwer found the rebound and scored on a backhander for the first of his two goals on the night to make it 1-0 at 5:48.
Less than three minutes later, they upped the advantage. Dmitry Orlov picked off a stretch pass and sent Ovechkin streaking down the left side boards, but as the Panthers focused on the Capitals’ star, Laich drove the net unimpeded. Ovechkin threaded a pass across, and Laich blasted a one-timer through Tim Thomas (27 saves) to make it 2-0.
But even after a nearly three-week break, some habits — like allowing teams to hang around in games — remain part of Washington’s game.
Late in the period, Orlov lost the puck high in his own zone to Jesse Winchester, who found Tomas Fleischmann trailing on the play for an easy one-timer past Braden Holtby (30 saves) to pull Florida within one with 4:33 left in the first.
Forty seconds into the second period, the Panthers tied the contest at 2 after Brouwer lost a battle along the boards, forcing Washington to chase into its own zone. In the Caps’ attempt to recover, no one picked up Brad Boyes, who scored on a rebound that popped out to the right post.
“If you look at the goals against, we have the puck on our stick. If you look at our penalties, we’re in control of the puck and poor decisions and execution cause us to take penalties,” Laich said. “There’s certainly areas of our game we can clean up.”
Washington didn’t need to wait long to take advantage of another sloppy moment from the Panthers, though. This time it was Carlson intercepting a pass in the neutral zone to spring a rush the opposite way. Martin Erat put a shot on net, and this time it was Nicklas Backstrom who capitalized for a 3-2 lead at 3:44 of the middle period. Brouwer’s second goal of the game was much like the first, a product of being around the blue paint, as he tucked a rebound from an Ovechkin shot past Thomas to make it 4-2.
But in the third, the Capitals turned into a disheveled, self-destructive mess. Holtby took a delay of game penalty when he fired the puck over the glass with 6:19 gone in the period.
“I thought we were going great until Holts put it in the stands,” Oates said. “It happens. It’s a penalty, but they had nothing going until then, and then they get a power play.”
The Panthers converted with Jimmy Hayes tipping a long-range shot between Holtby’s legs as he screened the netminder in front. Eighty-two seconds later Boyes recorded his second goal as Washington’s defensive zone coverage disintegrated to make it 4-4.
Although Ovechkin would ultimately seal a win, the Capitals couldn’t help but focus on how they almost let this game get away.
“After that game,” Brouwer said, “it’s a win, but it’s not really a winning feeling in here at the moment.”
Capitals note: Marcus Johansson was a late scratch after having rejoined his teammates late Wednesday night following a 20-hour trip from Sweden, where he had been resolving a visa issue. Without Johansson in the mix, 24-year-old Nicolas Deschamps of LaSalle, Quebec, made his NHL debut.