New carpet had been ordered for the Washington Capitals’ locker room in Verizon Center, complete with a team logo (roped off to preserve its sanctity). A leadership group was created to streamline communication between veterans and rookies. The defensemen enjoyed more breakouts, liberated from the conservative orders of the previous regime. The results had brought an unbeaten-in-regulation start, 11 goals in two games and a surprise day off. Next up on Coach Barry Trotz’s agenda: Become a scary team at home.
What followed Saturday night hardly represented the overwhelming suffocation Trotz envisioned, but scratching out tight wins would suffice, too. Confronted again by the emotional randomness of the NHL shootout, teetering between happiness and gloom for the third time in four home games, Washington escaped with a 2-1 victory over the Florida Panthers, an exhalation instead of the hopeful romp.
“They don’t ask you how,” Trotz said, “just how many. We’ll take those two points.”
During the shootout, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin slipped pucks past Panthers goaltender Al Montoya, boosting the Capitals as they pack up for their upcoming trip to western Canada. In Backstrom’s 500th career game, the Capitals cracked 50 percent on faceoff wins for the first time all season. Forward Jason Chimera scored his first goal. Backup goaltender Justin Peters played 65 strong minutes and made 20 saves.
Most importantly, the Capitals allowed a lesser team back into the game in the third period, yet still emerged with a win that eluded them so often before Trotz arrived, changes in tow, this summer.
“These are big points,” forward Eric Fehr said. “These are the points that kept us from the playoffs last year. We lost a lot of these games where we had a lead and we weren’t able to keep it close to the end. To be able to salvage the win, it wasn’t the way we wanted it, but those are two points.”
Over the summer, while gathering intelligence on the Capitals, Trotz heard a familiar critique from his new players. Whenever their emotions crested, riding high from a big win, they became overconfident, deviated from fundamentals and spiraled. “This is an important game for me,” Trotz had told them before facing Florida, after they scored five goals vs. San Jose and six against New Jersey, “to see how you respond.”
Early returns were fruitful. Chimera began the scoring with 2 minutes 48 seconds left in the first period, finding an open lane and accepting a perfect pinhole pass from Fehr, which skirted beneath two flailing Panthers sticks. Two games ago, Trotz had moved Fehr between Chimera and Joel Ward — aptly dubbed “the twins” for their bond — hoping to jolt them into more offensive production. So Chimera waited for Montoya to sprawl onto the ice, the goaltender’s only option with Chimera slipping past the defense, and flicked the puck into the net.
“Great pass by Fehrsie,” Chimera said. “All I had to do was finish it.”
The Capitals kept the slim lead until the third period, when defenseman Nate Schmidt was whistled for a high-sticking penalty and Panthers winger Brad Boyes scored with 12 seconds left in the power play. Washington hadn’t won a 1-0 game in the regular season since Jan. 11, 2012, and Boyes ensured it stayed that way.
In the shootout, Peters stopped Jussi Jokinen in the second round to set up Ovechkin’s winner.
“That’s what you need,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “When you make mistakes, your goalie can bail you out. It allows you to play with confidence in front of him.”
Late in the final period, the Capitals also suffered some ancillary damage, when forward Brooks Laich disappeared into the tunnel during a media timeout, grimacing after colliding with winger Shawn Thornton and suffering what appeared to be a left shoulder injury. An update, Trotz said, would be provided Monday.
The Capitals were scheduled to have a day off Sunday, another day of respite following a week of two shootouts and a high-scoring blowout at Verizon Center. On Monday would come practice, then Tuesday’s flight to western Canada where Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver await. Washington remained unbeaten in regulation through five games and had exorcised its shootout demons, yet the team will leave home still looking to generate some fear in its opponents in the process.
“We had to scratch and claw to get these two points,” Trotz said. ‘That is another thing we can work on.”