SUNRISE, Fla. — Before the start of last season, defenseman Matt Niskanen mapped out his goals for the year, notably a desire to contribute more offensively. But an injury-riddled blue line vaulted Niskanen into a top defensive role for the Capitals, and his hopes of increased scoring were tabled as he evolved into a shutdown defender.
As Niskanen considered his aims before this season, he went back to the unfulfilled one from last year. He knew more scoring would stem from more shots, and Thursday’s game at the Florida Panthers was a good start: Two Niskanen shots were redirected in front for goals, lifting Washington to a 4-2 win.
“You talk about Matt Niskanen, and what is his strength? It’s his overall game,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s capable of putting up points, as he said. He’s been a rock for us, last year and this year, and one of the most level-headed guys we have on the hockey team. There’s a lot of old school in him, which is nice and refreshing.”
Washington scored its goals in old-school fashion, all coming from close range and in front of the net. With the game tied going into the third period after the Panthers erased the Capitals’ early 2-0 lead, Alex Ovechkin tipped a Niskanen point shot past Florida goaltender Roberto Luongo for the go-ahead goal. Washington’s second goal of the game, coming halfway through the first period, had been scored in a similar manner, when Evgeny Kuznetsov used impressive hand-eye coordination to get his blade on another Niskanen shot and redirect it in.
Niskanen played 22:48, second on the team to only John Carlson, and he blocked four shots to go with his two-assist performance.
“Obviously, he’s a solid D,” Ovechkin said of Niskanen. “He can play physical and play good defense, but his offensive skill is very good as well.”
Defenseman Nate Schmidt was called for interference 9:22 into the third period, less than two minutes after Ovechkin’s goal had given the Capitals a lead. After allowing a power-play goal in the second period, the third such occurrence in Washington’s first four games, it got the all-important kill late to maintain the lead. Marcus Johansson then added an unassisted insurance goal with 1:20 remaining.
“That’s big,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “One of the things we pride ourselves on is our [penalty kill] and thought we did a pretty good job tonight. We’ll look at it, see where we can improve and be even better.”
Plagued by sluggish starts last season, the Capitals scored first for a fourth straight game. Schmidt sped down the ice, lugging the puck along the right wall and just past the goal line. He then fed Justin Williams in the slot, and after Luongo stopped Williams’s first shot, Williams was able to punch in the rebound, putting Washington on the board 8:25 into the game.
The goal also marked a first for the Capitals’ third line, Washington’s only forward trio yet to register a point entering the contest. That it needed a little more time to get going wasn’t surprising considering that it features center Lars Eller and winger Brett Connolly, both offseason acquisitions intended to boost the Capitals’ depth scoring.
“We’ve gotten better marginally every game we’ve played,” Williams said. “I mean, kind of hard not to. We didn’t have some great games to start. We’re talking a little bit more, we’re supporting a little bit more and we’re getting to know each other a little bit more.”
Less than two minutes after Williams got Washington on the board, Kuznetsov’s redirect gave the Capitals a 2-0 lead. The Panthers answered 13:47 into the period, when defenseman Michael Matheson’s shot from the half wall got past Holtby, who said he never saw it.
Washington’s strong first period was negated by a poor second frame. After outshooting Florida 12-8 through 20 minutes, the Capitals were reeling coming out of the first intermission. The Panthers had 10 shots on goal in the first 10 minutes of the second period, while Washington managed just one, as the Capitals were shorthanded twice in that span.
Washington caught a break on Florida’s second power play of the period. With heavy traffic in front of Holtby, an official whistled the play dead, just before a puck from Colton Sceviour’s shot crossed the goal line, the Panthers initially believing they had tied the game. But Sceviour’s goal was immediately waved off.
The Capitals didn’t get so fortunate on the Panthers’ third power play of the second period. After Nicklas Backstrom was called for tripping, Jaromir Jagr unfurled a wrist shot in the high slot to score the 750th goal of his illustrious career. That set the stage for a tied start to the third period.
“We’re pretty confident in third period, especially when it’s tied or any situation,” Holtby said. “We don’t get too flustered in our room. They’re a pretty good team, and I think we realized that in the second period with their speed. We made some adjustments and came out and played our game.”