The contest was tied at 2 after the second intermission — then the Capitals flipped the switch. They took a lead a little more than five minutes into the period when Lars Eller knocked in a rebound from a Jakub Vrana shot off the pad of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, then doubled the margin about six minutes later when Brendan Leipsic finished off a dazzling breakaway.
“[We] stuck with it,” Eller said. “After the second I think everybody felt like, except the top line, everybody had to take it up a notch. We all knew we had [to play] better. One thing is knowing it and saying it, but we went out and raised our level in the third. That was strong character.”
Eller’s goal was his first since Nov. 3 against Calgary, and Vrana’s assist was his 100th career point.
“It was weird because I felt like during the month I’ve had plenty of opportunities to score and [hit] posts and bars,” Eller said of his scoring drought. “Didn’t play particularly well today, and first opportunity I really get, probably only shot on net, rebound, it’s odd. But it feels good.”
The Panthers cut the Capitals’ lead to one after Vincent Trocheck’s goal at 15:31 but could draw no closer. The win snapped a modest two-game losing streak for the Capitals, who improved to 17-4-5.
Despite the positive result and scoring four goals for the first time in three games, Washington struggled to create scoring chances and was outshot 40-20.
“You know they kind of lulled us to sleep with the way they played. They held on to the puck quite a bit also, but when it counts I think we put our best foot forward, had a good third period,” Leipsic said.
The Capitals’ fifth and final shot in the middle period was Richard Panik’s snipe from the right circle that gave the Capitals a brief 2-1 lead a minute before intermission. However, the lead disappeared less than 25 seconds later when Mike Hoffman equalized.
Despite getting outshot 11-5 in the opening period, the Capitals scored the frame’s only goal with 2:03 remaining in the period on a stunning piece of skating from Alex Ovechkin. The captain collected a pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov between the circles, cut through the heart of the Panthers’ defense and turned around Mark Pysyk with a skilled toe drag and curl before beating Bobrovsky five-hole.
It was Ovechkin’s 16th goal and the 674th of his career. He is 11 shy of passing Teemu Selanne (684) for 11th most in NHL history. Kuznetsov has five points (two goals and three assists) in his past six games.
“They’ve got the best shooter in the game, so they got some chances there,” Panthers Coach Joel Quenneville said. “I thought defensively we did a lot of good things throughout most of the game, and we had some decent looks ourselves. The power play didn’t cash, but all the sudden you get that third one there, and it’s almost like there’s another hope there because we’ve had some miraculous comebacks.”
Despite the uneven play five-on-five, Washington’s penalty kill went 3 for 3 on the night, holding the Panthers’ fifth-ranked power play at bay.
“That’s a good challenge for our penalty kill,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “We don’t want to start that way, and penalties have been a focal point for us, and it’s just how properly, you know, to discuss the ones that are unforced. . . . The kill was an important part of the game tonight. That’s a good power play over there.”
The final kill came minutes after Brett Connolly, who returned to the District for the first time since he signed with the Panthers (12-8-5) in the offseason, tied the score at 1 with 8:43 left in the second. T.J. Oshie made an ill-timed turnover, which led to Connolly’s breakaway and his second goal in two games against his former team.
One reason for the penalty kill unit’s success was the return of Nic Dowd, who missed the past five games after he injured his hand against Philadelphia on Nov. 13. Reirden said he liked the play of Dowd in Wednesday’s game, though it was clear he was still adjusting after missing so many games.
“He obviously helps us with the penalty kill, and a right-handed centerman is a nice luxury to have, certainly with how faceoffs are working nowadays,” Reirden said. “I think he did some good things.”
Dowd had suffered unforeseen complications with the injury that prolonged his return. In the first period, Dowd won four out of five faceoffs, including all three of his attempts on the penalty kill. The special teams group is still missing Nicklas Backstrom (upper body, day-to-day), Carl Hagelin (long term injured reserve) and Garnet Hathaway (suspension).
In the second period, Dowd made a great feed to Leipsic, but Leipsic fanned on the bouncing pass with an empty net in front of him, and the Capitals barely missed on another quick tally. Instead, it gave way to the Panthers’ game-tying score from Connolly.
With Dowd finally back in the lineup, the depleted Caps also will get some relief once Hathaway returns from his three-game suspension Friday against Tampa Bay. Hagelin is eligible to return Dec. 3 against San Jose.