Captain Alex Ovechkin had given the Capitals that initial two-goal cushion 3:52 into the third period, but the Blackhawks came right back with goals by Dominik Kubalik 6:05 into the period and by Patrick Kane at 9:58.
The tie didn’t last long, with forward Tom Wilson scoring the game-winning goal from the front of the net with 8:13 to play. Center Lars Eller added an empty-netter with 50 seconds left for some insurance.
Washington improved to 6-2-2
, starting its five-game road trip on a positive note before continuing on through Western Canada. Goaltender Braden Holtby made 41 saves and kept a hungry Blackhawks team from scoring in the final two minutes after Chicago added an extra attacker. Holtby has made 67 saves on 72 shots in his past two games after getting pulled Oct. 14 for allowing three goals on three shots against Colorado.
“He’s definitely got his calm demeanor back,” Wilson said of Holtby. “He’s one of those guys where if there are pucks flying everywhere he just seems to swallow them up and he’s our rock. He’s an extremely good leader on the ice, off the ice. I’m happy for him. He played great tonight.”
Wilson tallied the go-ahead goal, and Holtby preserved the late lead, but it was the Capitals’ special-teams units that ultimately made the difference. Forward T.J. Oshie scored a power-play goal 9:25 into the first period, converting the Capitals’ only extra-man opportunity of the game. The penalty kill went 5 for 5, and Nic Dowd scored a shorthanded goal 9:53 into the second period to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead.
Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan entered last year’s trade deadline knowing his team needed to get better on the penalty kill. It was an area the team had struggled with all season, unable to find the right personnel or the right balance of when to apply pressure in a system designed to be aggressive.
The team acquired winger Carl Hagelin and defenseman Nick Jensen at the deadline, immediately boosting a penalty-killing unit that has continued to excel this season. Washington was tied for eighth in the NHL in penalty-kill percentage even before its impressive showing Sunday.
“Special teams, I talk about it all the time, and it is something that wasn’t where we wanted it to be and it has been solid for us these last couple games,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said.
Hagelin made his presence felt on the penalty kill again Sunday after he put his head down and sped up ice after a turnover by Kane midway through the second period. Hagelin made a clean pass to Dowd to break the tie.
Chicago had scored its first goal just 1:28 earlier, and Chandler Stephenson’s double-minor for high-sticking came at a dangerous time. Instead the Capitals took the lead with the shorthanded goal, and the Blackhawks managed only one shot on goal during their extended advantage.
Dowd and Hagelin were one of the team’s shorthanded forward pairs Sunday, and Wilson and Eller formed the other. Reirden said he talked with assistant coach Scott Arniel before the game to make the switch to those two particular combinations — and if the results Sunday were any indication, they worked.
Dowd had been in and out of the Capitals’ lineup to start the season, trading places as the fourth-line center with Stephenson, until an injury to Richard Panik forced the team to place Panik on injured reserve before Friday’s game against the New York Rangers. Dowd has now scored twice in as many games.
“Yeah, it was a good turning point there,” Dowd said. “Obviously unlucky at the four minutes, but you try to take momentum away whenever you can. Whether it’s the power play got us going early with the momentum, but special teams was a big factor for us tonight.”
Oshie’s power-play goal in the first period — his team-leading seventh goal of the season, this one on a feed from Evgeny Kuznetsov after a puck battle — was his third in his past two games. The Capitals’ power play is now 7 for 15 on the road. What earlier this season was a concerning area for Washington is suddenly resembling the prolific unit of the past few years.
Oshie was on the wrong end of Chicago’s first equalizer, when he fell entering the offensive zone and fourth-liner Drake Caggiula scored off the turnover. Both teams’ depth forwards contributed, with Dowd’s shorthanded goal providing a quick answer.
The Capitals had another response in them after Chicago tied it again in the third period, and they will take a three-game winning streak with them to Calgary.
“I think it’s always nice when you can win the first one on a long road trip,” Wilson said. “Definitely makes this four-hour plane ride a little bit more fun and it sets us off on the right foot, so that’s all you can ask coming into a tough building.”