The Detroit Red Wings made their intentions clear from the start Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center. If the Washington Capitals were on the power play, Detroit would dedicate one player solely to shadowing Alex Ovechkin in an effort to take the league’s leading goal-scorer out of the equation.
But in overtime, when the Capitals went on the man-advantage the Red Wings could no longer afford to isolate the star winger given the four-on-three setup. What followed went according to a familiar script: Ovechkin unleashed his beastly one-timer, blasting a shot past Detroit netminder Jimmy Howard for a 6-5 overtime win and two important points for the Capitals.
It was Ovechkin’s 15th career overtime winner, tying him for the third most in NHL history. Only Jaromir Jagr (18) and Patrik Elias (16) have more.
“He’s pretty clutch,” Jason Chimera said. “What a good shot. He’s our go-to guy. When we need him he’s there.”
The victory moved the Capitals (59 points) within a point of the final wild-card playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, a spot occupied by the Red Wings by virtue of the point they snagged in forcing the chaotic game into overtime.
“Every point right now counts,” said Ovechkin, who has 39 goals this season. “I’m pretty sure it’s a good two points. Next game we’re going to feel pretty better. Everything right now have to work fine for us.”
The Capitals’ inability to maintain leads remains a prime concern: They failed to maintain a two-goal lead three times in Sunday’s matinee, the second of a home-and-home series with the Red Wings. But finding a way to generate a positive result offers something to build off of for a team that returned home from a five-game road trip with three key players unavailable — Mike Green (concussion), Brooks Laich (groin) and Mikhail Grabovski (left ankle).
The Capitals found their offense early, dictating the flow and pace for much of the first period and scoring three goals in the opening 20 minutes.
Veteran wingers Joel Ward and Chimera did what they do best on a rush up ice, going to high-traffic areas and looking for any opportunity. Ward fired a shot off the right post from in front of the net that caromed to low in the right circle, where Chimera had begun cycling back toward the net. Chimera fired a shot into an open net for a 1-0 lead at 4 minutes 43 seconds.
A little less than three minutes later, Ward beat Howard (22 saves) to his blocker side with a wrist shot from the slot on the power play to make it 2-0. It was all Capitals at that point — the Red Wings didn’t even put a shot on goal against Michal Neuvirth until 8:52 had passed.
But a cross-checking penalty by rookie defenseman Connor Carrick allowed the visitors to get on the scoreboard. Gustav Nyquist, who would finish the game with a hat trick and an assist, scored from out in front on the power play with 11:40 gone in the opening period to cut Washington’s advantage in half.
“With the penalties it just gives other teams momentum,” Ward said. “When we put the foot on the gas and take it to them we’re a really good hockey club, and sometimes we make our own mistakes with the odd penalty or something like that, just a turnover that kills us a little bit and gives the other team momentum.”
The Capitals rebuilt their lead in relatively short order, though, with a power-play goal from John Carlson, who blasted a shot through heavy traffic in front as Troy Brouwer screened Howard by getting tied up with big Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall.
Detroit pushed early in the second, and Neuvirth (25 saves) thwarted quality scoring chances as long as he could until the defensive play in front of him eroded.
The Red Wings’ deft passing was on display during a perfect breakout rush and they caught Washington’s third defensive pair cheating to one side. So when Tomas Tatar got the puck on the left wing, John Erskine could only reach in a vain attempt to block a shot that hit off Neuvirth’s blocker and bounced into the net to make it 3-2 at 13:30.
“Right now we’re giving up too many goals. It’s never over,” Coach Adam Oates said. “It’s never over, especially against teams who can light it up.”
Nineteen seconds later, the Capitals answered with another goal by Ward, who drove hard to the net and found the puck loose in the crease to make it 4-2. The goal was Ward’s 17th of the season, tying his career high recorded in 2008-09.
But the Capitals, even when they do so much correctly for so long, can’t seem to get out of their own way. Brouwer took a neutral-zone slashing penalty that resulted in Nyquist’s second goal, a backdoor tap-in off a feed by Henrik Zetterberg, that put Detroit within one heading into the third period.
Forty-two seconds into the third the Red Wings tied the game at 4. On a one-man breakout, Zetterberg froze Erskine and Carlson as he skated into the Capitals’ zone, only to send a cross-ice pass in front for a streaking Nyquist, who tapped the puck past Neuvirth’s skate for a hat trick.
Staying true to form, the teams traded goals once more before regulation expired. Brouwer pushed the Capitals ahead once more, 5-4, when he drove the net after a Detroit turnover and beat Howard to his glove side at 4:28. Justin Abdelkader answered for the Red Wings, beating Karl Alzner to the front of the net off a faceoff, to make it 5-5. It marked the 24th time this season Washington allowed a goal within two minutes of scoring.
But ultimately Ovechkin would have the ability to turn an error-ridden game with mishandled leads into a happy result.
“It was a huge goal in overtime for us. If we come out of that game without two points I think we’re pretty dejected and guys are questioning again,” Chimera said. “It was a big two points.”