Alex Ovechkin danced down the ice, artfully maneuvering the puck from one end to the other, around lunging New Jersey defenseman John Moore and then past goaltender Keith Kinkaid into the top right corner of the net. He skated down on one knee in celebration, and “O-vi” chants appreciatively followed.
This debut of the Capitals’ bolstered top-six forward corps — sans injured center Nicklas Backstrom — had a retro feel to it. Right wings T.J. Oshie and Justin Willliams, Washington’s lauded offseason additions, had their chances in the Capitals’ 5-3 season-opening win over the Devils at Verizon Center, but the game-winning score came from the tenured captain, his strike triggering a dominant third period.
“If he can do that every time we’re tied in the third period, that would be fine,” Williams said. “Just 81 more plus playoffs.”
An Ovechkin goal was one of the only predictable pieces of a game that included a shorthanded goal and then a second score from the unlikeliest of players. Almost as quickly as the Capitals built a 2-0 lead, they lost it, but then Ovechkin delivered his highlight-reel shot to recover it.
Less than seven minutes after his goal, Ovechkin fed Marcus Johansson on a power play, and Johansson’s wrist shot gave the Capitals a two-goal lead 12 minutes 44 seconds into the third period. Defenseman Matt Niskanen’s empty-netter with 2:53 to play assured the result against a division opponent.
“We’re very fortunate to have a guy like Ovi,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “He really didn’t do anything early in the game and was a non-factor. When the game was on the line — in a 2-2 game — he became a big factor.”
The evening began with the usual fanfare of an opening night. Each player walked down a red carpet in a suit as he arrived at the arena, stopped for selfies and signed autographs. Later, the Capitals entered the ice through a tunnel, then fog, announced one by one. They had endured seven preseason games and then a six-day break to finally get to this point, one of the last teams to play their first game.
The long break didn’t bode well for a team with a history of slow starts, and some expected sluggishness was present after nearly a week of just practice. First periods have not been the Capitals’ forte, but they raced out to a 2-0 lead against the Devils, who finished 13th in the Eastern Conference last season.
With Evgeny Kuznetsov in the penalty box for hooking, the Capitals flung the puck into the offensive zone, where Williams corralled it and sent a backhand pass to Jason Chimera. Chimera’s shot was deflected into the net by Devils forward Jordin Tootoo, giving the Capitals a 1-0 lead 12:04 into the first period. It was the first time in team history that the first goal of the season came shorthanded.
Less than three minutes later, the Capitals benefited from another rare feat. Brooks Orpik, just activated off the injured non-roster list on Saturday after his surgically repaired wrist sidelined him for every preseason game, fielded a pass from Tom Wilson and blasted a slap shot for his first goal in a Capitals jersey. He played 78 games last year without scoring, and the 35-year-old defenseman has never scored more than two goals in a season.
But the celebrations were short-lived. Adam Henrique wristed a shot top-shelf 22 seconds after Orpik’s goal to cut the Capitals’ lead in half. Sean Collins got called for holding less than two minutes later, and Devils defenseman Eric Gelinas blasted in the tying score from the top of the zone.
“They were playing at game speed, and we weren’t,” Trotz said. “I thought we were very fortunate to be up 2-0, and we gave it right back. It was probably justice, if you will, because I didn’t think we deserved to be up 2-0.”
Washington had a ripe opportunity to take a lead in the second period, when 22 seconds into a Capitals power play, Lee Stempniak got called for holding, giving Washington a five-on-three advantage for 1:38. The Capitals had five shots on goal in that span, including one off a transition into the offensive zone that left Oshie all alone.
The chance resembled a shootout strike Oshie’s known for burying, but his backhand shot was saved. Instead of capitalizing on the two-man advantage, the Capitals instead found themselves reeling as one Devils player stormed out of the penalty box and Henrique had a breakaway look, but the threat was stopped by Braden Holtby’s right pad.
To that point, Ovechkin had been having a quiet night, unimpressive by his standards. But in his 11th season opener with the Capitals, he again came through when they needed him most.
“I know I didn’t play well for two periods,” Ovechkin said. “In the third, we started moving the puck, and we controlled the puck, and you see, we have good scoring chances.”