COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the Washington Capitals headed to their dressing room after 40 minutes of play on Saturday night, some players slammed their sticks in the tunnel while others threw their heads back and stared at the ceiling. It looked as though the team’s 2011 might end with a whimper against the worst team in the NHL.
A furious third-period comeback instead launched Washington into 2012 with its first three-game winning streak since October.
Three goals in the span of 2 minutes 53 seconds erased a two-goal deficit and fueled the Capitals to a 4-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. It marked just the third time this season that Washington has rallied to win a game after trailing entering the third period.
The victory improved the Capitals to 5-2-1 in their past eight contests and gave them a much-needed two points to complete a run of three wins in four nights. Washington (20-15-2) holds 42 points but is sitting outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture in ninth place.
“For a while here we were going win one, win two, lose a couple — we were going back and forth,” defenseman Dennis Wideman said. “We needed to string some together. The top teams are starting to pull away from us and we’re getting into that time of year where you need to crank it up and start running some wins together to try to get back up there were we need to be.”
Columbus, which has just 10 wins in 38 games, outworked the Capitals through the first two periods and carried a two-goal advantage into the final period of regulation. No one in the visitors’ dressing room was pleased with the effort. But rather than accept a subpar fate, Washington opted to throw everything it had at the Blue Jackets.
“We had nothing to lose,” Coach Dale Hunter said. “We were down 2-0, it’s an all-out blitz and the guys did a great job skating, playing hard, never quit, and it’s a credit to them.”
Hunter wanted pressure from all areas, with defensemen pinching to help keep offensive play alive. Ovechkin began the onslaught when he recorded his first goal of the night 4:23 into the third. Though scored as unassisted, his one-timer from the left faceoff circle that broke Steve Mason’s shutout bid was set up by a slap pass from Wideman.
The defenseman set up another tally when he found Alexander Semin, whose wicked wrister at 6:48 evened the score at 2 during four-on-four play while the Capitals’ Dmitry Orlov and Grant Clitsome of Columbus were in the penalty box for matching roughing minors.
Twenty-eight seconds later Wideman added a goal of his own, his first in nine games. The blast of a slap shot, which also came during four-on-four play, deflected off a Blue Jacket’s stick to beat Mason (22 saves) and stood as the game-winner.
Ovechkin added his second of the night and 16th of the season as insurance with just less than nine minutes remaining in regulation with a slap shot on the power play. The star left wing has seven goals in the past eight games.
“Everybody was upset how we playing [in the first two periods]. I don’t think we play at all our game,” Ovechkin said. “So we just play hard and again this kind of win that we need and all the momentum on our side.”
Until the final period, though, the contest was hardly under the Capitals’ control. The game featured choppy play with turnovers aplenty, an abundance of whistles and more than 34 minutes of scoreless action.
Early in the game, the Blue Jackets showed a willingness to win battles for the puck in corners and along the boards, forcing the issue against Washington, which looked beleaguered in its second game in as many nights.
As the first period wore on, Columbus (10-23-5) gained some momentum and in the final five minutes of the period peppered netminder Tomas Vokoun (35 saves) with shots from all angles and speeds. The veteran goaltender remained composed and helped Washington reach the intermission in a scoreless tie.
In the second, what was already a slow-moving contest regressed to more of a crawl as whistles for offsides, high sticks, icings or shots off the netting occurred with stunning frequency. With the play continuing in spurts, the first goal grew in importance, and Columbus got it when a turnover by Jason Chimera turned into a goal by John Moore at 14:47 of the second.
Samuel Pahlsson made it 2-0 with just 34.9 seconds remaining in the second, but that tally, which could have set Washington on its heels, galvanized the group into making sure it didn’t let the week of progress unravel in one night.
“It’s a big win for us. Losing here would have erased the big effort against Buffalo and Rangers earlier this week,” Vokoun said. “We need these points. We’re not sitting in the second or first place where we can say, ‘Well we have a nice comfortable cushion.’ We’re actually outside the playoffs so we need every point we can get.”
Capitals note: Mike Green missed a 23rd consecutive contest with a strained right groin muscle. He made the trip with the team, however, and took part in an optional on-ice workout Saturday.