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Capitals’ holiday hangover lasts about 20 minutes in win over Hurricanes

Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby stops Hurricanes right wing Andrei Svechnikov (37) from scoring late in the third period of Washington’s 3-1 win Thursday at Capital One Arena.
Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby stops Hurricanes right wing Andrei Svechnikov (37) from scoring late in the third period of Washington’s 3-1 win Thursday at Capital One Arena. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Asked whether this season has been a pleasant surprise because so many expected a Stanley Cup hangover, captain Alex Ovechkin appeared confused by the concept. Although past defending champions had struggled some to start, that hasn’t been an issue for the Washington Capitals, who have been in strong form for more than a month.

But Ovechkin did mention the team might have to guard against a different kind of hangover.

“Maybe after Christmas, yeah,” Ovechkin said. “Not from the Stanley Cup.”

The Capitals may have been a bit sluggish in the first period of Thursday night’s game, their first after a four-day holiday break, but they didn’t take long to pick up where they left off before Christmas. Washington beat the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-1, and goaltender Braden Holtby made 28 saves in the win.

“Any rust or plays that weren’t perfect tonight were kind of expected, and my big thought process was to continue and move forward as the game went on and get better and better,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “It was a good win for us.”

And while Washington had a lot to be happy about, the team also lost defenseman Matt Niskanen to injury after he went headfirst into the boards in the third period. Reirden didn’t have an update after the game.

Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen exits game after scary crash into boards

The Capitals had been rolling before the break; they had won 14 of 17 games, claiming first place in the Metropolitan Division and then holding on to it. But Washington has historically struggled when it gets out of a rhythm with too many days off. Reirden added two extra drills to Thursday’s morning skate, but that probably didn’t do much to prepare the Capitals for being shorthanded three times in the first period.

The last time Washington played Carolina, the penalty kill yielded three power-play goals, and the volume of minor penalties the Capitals have taken has been a point of frustration for Reirden. He undoubtedly wasn’t pleased when Washington was whistled for three in the first period, including two in the offensive zone. But this time, the Hurricanes’ power play managed just three shots on those three opportunities, the same number that the Capitals got in their one power play.

“We’ve been improving in that aspect, and I think from the last time we played them, we all wanted to step up,” Holtby said. “It was not one of our better performances. I think we all took that to heart and went out there with a good plan and executed. I didn’t think we gave them much for free. They had to work for everything, and that’s a good [penalty kill].”

Washington’s special teams entered the game having not scored a power-play goal in four straight games, the team’s longest drought of the season. But at even strength, Washington has the league’s third-best offense with 2.80 goals per game while also being in the top three for the fewest five-on-five goals allowed. Against the Hurricanes, the Capitals got a little of both as they entered the third period with a 2-0 lead.

With Washington playing so well over the past seven weeks, Reirden has had tough lineup decisions; no one’s play has really warranted being scratched. The fourth line in particular has been a revolving door, a balance between wanting offensive upside and wanting to play the best penalty-killing forwards. But that trio has managed to score consistently no matter who is on it. On Thursday night, Reirden scratched center Nic Dowd, in the midst of his best season with four goals and nine assists, in favor of a line with center Travis Boyd and wingers Devante Smith-Pelly and Chandler ­Stephenson.

Just 3:33 into the second period, Smith-Pelly and Boyd pressured defenseman Calvin de Haan into a defensive-zone turnover, and Stephenson corralled the loose puck before launching it past goaltender Petr Mrazek for the game’s first goal. That marked his fourth goal of the season, and some version of the fourth line has been on the ice for at least one goal in six of the past 10 games.

How the Capitals are getting more offense from their defensemen

On the Capitals’ fourth power play (and third of the second period), the unit finally broke through. John Carlson’s point shot was tipped in front by forward T.J. Oshie, snapping an 0-for-19 stretch on the man advantage.

“Sometimes when you can’t find a way to score when you have that much level of talent on a unit, you sometimes have to simplify things,” Oshie said. “They seemed to start spreading out. They really wanted to take away [Ovechkin]. They were sagging a little bit, giving John some space. We simplified a little bit. John made a great play — shot to an area where I could tip. . . . Kind of right place, right time.”

That goal gave the Capitals the cushion they needed going into the third period, when Carolina’s Sebastian Aho ended Holtby’s shutout bid with a goal off a rebound. Then Carlson scored an empty-net goal in the final ­minute to seal the victory.

“I think our game got sloppy tonight maybe because of that break,” Oshie said. “We haven’t been skating and keeping those fundamentals and those smart plays in our game, but we found a way to get it done tonight.”

Read more on the Capitals:

Alex Ovechkin voted NHL All-Star Game’s Metropolitan Division captain

Where Capitals goaltender Pheonix Copley is from, it’s always Christmas

After 14 years, two combat zones and a hat trick, a mission to find a beloved Nats cap

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