DETROIT — Twenty-four hours after suffering one of their ugliest losses of the season, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals displayed the desperation — and level of execution — they lacked in Chicago. Ovechkin scored twice on the power play and goaltending prospect Braden Holtby earned his first NHL win in almost a year as the Capitals stunned the injury-riddled Detroit Red Wings, 5-3, Monday night.
“This is the team we’ve got to be,” said winger Jason Chimera, who had a goal and an assist. “I said to myself in the first intermission, ‘Wow, that is the Washington Capitals.’ That’s what we can be like. [Sunday] was a stinker in the first period. Today it was probably the best period we’ve played all year.”
The victory was the Capitals’ first at Joe Louis Arena since Nov. 24, 2003. In two games this season, they’ve now outscored Detroit 12-4, including a 7-1 win at Verizon Center on Oct. 22.
More important, though, the win allowed the Capitals to maintain their grip on the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Buffalo thumped Tampa Bay, 7-3, to leap over Winnipeg and stay within two points of Washington.
“We knew after [Sunday] night we needed to come back and have a big win because there are a couple of big games being played elsewhere tonight,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “We have to keep pace and put some distance between us and them.”
One day after watching his team go down quietly in Chicago, Coach Dale Hunter shook up his roster and put Holtby in net.
Recalled from the minor leagues Sunday because of a groin muscle strain suffered by Tomas Vokoun, Holtby was sharp early and finished with 30 saves, including nine in the third period as the venerable arena’s heat and humidity caused his legs to cramp. The win was the 22-year-old’s first since March 26, 2011 in Montreal.
Hunter also scratched winger Joel Ward (two goals in 35 games) and struggling rookie defenseman Dmitry Orlov. They were replaced in the lineup by Jeff Halpern and Roman Hamrlik, respectively.
“We just thought we needed more faceoff help against [Pavel] Datsyuk,” Hunter said. “That’s the reason we put in Halpern.”
About Orlov, Hunter said: “We though Orly made a few mistakes [against the Blackhawks] so we decided to sit him down and let him watch from above.”
The response to the changes was immediate as the Capitals seized control in the first period and did not relinquish it against a Red Wings team that did not have Nicklas Lidstrom, who missed his 10th straight game with a bruised ankle, and other regulars. The loss was Detroit’s fifth in a row.
The Red Wings’ lineup was depleted, for sure. But it might not have made a difference in the first period.
Ovechkin opened the scoring at 7:48 on the power play. The goal was made possible by Marcus Johansson, who split the Red Wings’ defense at the blue line, then made a perfectly placed pass to Ovechkin in the slot. The Capitals’ captain ripped a snap shot past Jimmy Howard (17 saves).
“Perfect pass,” Ovechkin said. “I knew when he gave me the pass, I knew it was going to be in. I saw the net and I have lots of time.”
Less than four minutes later, Knuble finished off a pretty display of passing that began with a Perreault drop pass to Chimera, who slid a cross-crease pass to Knuble, who netted his third goal in four games. Knuble had three goals in his previous 60 games.
“I wanted to get him a goal in his home state,” Chimera said. “He had a lot of people watching. Now he owes me one in Edmonton.”
Ovechkin’s second goal stretched the lead to 3-0 at 14:51, again on the power play.
After the teams traded goals in the second period, Todd Bertuzzi cut the Capitals’ lead to 4-2 only 36 seconds into the third period.
Dan Cleary poked a rebound past Holtby with 7:08 left remaining to make it 4-3 and force the Capitals sweat it out. Knuble was then whistled for an offensive zone hook with 3:15 remaining, but it was cancelled out a minute later when Henrik Zetterberg was sent off for hooking.
Holtby made four saves after Cleary’s goal and Chimera scored into an empty net to ensure the Capitals improved to 22-0-0 when leading after 40 minutes.
“I’ve struggled both in the AHL and up here,” Holtby said. “Today I was given an opportunity to play a big game for this team, and I really wanted to be there for these guys.”