SUNRISE, Fla. — After leaving his prints on the Washington Capitals’ first two goals, Alex Ovechkin turned into a spectator as the team’s third score unfolded toward the end of the second period.
Evgeny Kuznetsov shoveled the puck off the boards and through his legs, Tom Wilson slid it into the middle of the zone, and defenseman John Carlson crushed a close-range shot into the top-right corner of the net. Ovechkin, who stood a few feet from Carlson and tracked the puck all over the ice, shot his arms in the air to celebrate the go-ahead goal of his team’s 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday night at BB&T Center.
Ovechkin was on the ice for three of the Capitals’ goals, and he produced some numbers that defined his greatness. He notched his 500th career assist in the first period. He scored his NHL-leading 30th goal of the season in the second; he has reached that mark in every one of his 13 NHL seasons. That goal also was the Capitals’ first five-on-five score in almost 153 minutes as the captain snapped a drought that also had played a role in the team’s three-game losing streak entering this matchup.
“I think it was stick to stick, but they have to check it,” Ovechkin said after the game, suggesting he thought he did not deflect the puck and it should have counted as Brooks Orpik’s first goal in 148 games. “But you know, if I score, I’ll take it.”
Off-ice officials confirmed the goal for Ovechkin after the game.
The Capitals (29-15-5) go on another five-day break for the NHL’s all-star weekend, which comes just a week after the bye week threw them into a three-game slumber. The team has been shaky coming out of long layoffs, and that only heightened the importance of getting in the win column against a Panthers team that fell to 2-5-1 in January.
“We finally started feeling good, and now we take another break,” said Carlson, who finished with 10 of his team’s 46 shots on goal. “We’ll have a practice when we get back and get right back at it. There will be no time to wait around and let ourselves feel good. We got to come back and start playing well right away. The season is coming down to the wire, and all these points mean so much.”
Kuznetsov left the game in the third period after falling to the ice during a faceoff, appearing to suffer a lower-body injury as he overextended his left leg. Coach Barry Trotz said the team did not have an update on his status.
The Panthers struck first on a goal from Denis Malgin, which came 27 seconds after their third fruitless power play of the first period. The Capitals were unable to jump on inexperienced goaltender Harri Sateri, who was making just his fourth NHL appearance, partly because they spent six minutes of the game’s first 10:35 on the penalty kill. But they turned special teams into a strength toward the end of the period, when Nicklas Backstrom beat Sateri to knot the score.
That gave Backstrom 198 career goals, passing Alexander Semin to stand alone in fifth place in franchise history. It also gave Ovechkin his milestone assist; he was credited with the secondary assist before Kuznetsov threaded the puck through the slot and right onto Backstrom’s waiting stick. Ovechkin, 32, joined Backstrom, who has 568 career assists, as the only players in Capitals history with 500 or more. That makes Ovechkin the fourth active player with 500 goals and 500 assists, joining the Calgary Flames’ Jaromir Jagr (45 years old), the Chicago Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa (39) and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Patrick Marleau (38).
“He’s a legendary player,” Trotz said of Ovechkin. “He’s getting the points, the goals, the assists. Everyone thinks of Alex as a pure goal scorer, which he is. He’s got to those numbers hundreds of games before other people have reached those numbers. But you always tend to forget that he’s a pretty good playmaker as well.”
The 1-1 tie lasted until 6:40 of the second period, and it wasn’t the Capitals who broke it: Malgin scored again as the puck trickled onto his stick in the left slot. That gave the 21-year-old his first multi-goal game — he came into the night with just 11 scores in 73 career appearances — and left the Capitals playing from behind again.
But that didn’t last long, either. Ovechkin quickly came up with an answer, tipping Orpik’s shot past Sateri, and Carlson scored later in the period. Brett Connolly netted a power-play goal at the start of the third, and for what felt like the first time in a long time, the Capitals played ahead, stayed ahead and won a game without much stress.
“You collect points, and this was a big game for us in the sense that we wanted to get to the break,” Trotz said. “We gathered some points. They’re not going to get any closer to us tonight.”
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