From the Florida Panthers’ perspective, the play worked perfectly. Late in the third period Saturday night, Panthers winger Scottie Upshall hit Washington Capitals defenseman Steve Oleksy, and Oleksy retaliated with his stick. Slashing.
“That’s a very undisciplined penalty,” Coach Adam Oates said.
“Inexcusable,” Oleksy admitted.
Instantly, Washington’s overused and recently remarkable penalty-kill unit was back on the ice, and the Panthers scored the tying goal with less than three minutes remaining.
Yet in what might be a measure of the momentum the Capitals could build on during a three-game homestand, Washington took a 3-2 shootout victory behind Nicklas Backstrom, who scored in regulation and finished it in the shootout, and goalie Michal Neuvirth, who made 30 saves in regulation and overtime and the game-winner in the shootout. It was their second straight victory without captain and star Alex Ovechkin, out with a shoulder injury, and even with the late letdown showed how strong they have been killing penalties.
“You’re still patching the dike, in a sense,” Oates said. “You don’t want to miss anybody in your lineup, let alone your star. But it proves that your team is still a solid hockey team, and you can do a lot of good things.”
Or, rather, do enough good things to overcome too much bad and beat the Panthers for the eighth straight time.
“Tonight,” Backstrom said, “it really was an ugly one.”
It was an ugly tone from the start, because by the time the Capitals recorded their third shot — almost 16 minutes into the first period — they had already been forced to kill two penalties. By the end of the first, when they led 1-0 on Backstrom’s third goal in two nights, they had killed three. The only person this may have benefitted was Neuvirth, playing his first game at Verizon Center since Oct. 12.
“I like when I see a lot of shots in the first period,” Neuvirth said. “It gets me going.”
By necessity, the penalty-killing unit — a group led by John Carslon, Karl Alzner, Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich — had to get going, too. This, though, has become standard. Even as the Capitals and Panthers traded goals in the second — Florida on a breakaway from Jesse Winchester, John Carlson with his first of the year just 36 seconds later to put Washington back up 2-1 — the game had an off-kilter feel because Washington kept going to the box. Late in the third period, the Caps had killed five penalties, and that gave them a remarkable 35 straight going back 10 games.
“Everybody knows where to be and everyone knows what to do,” Carlson said. “It’s nice when it meshes, because it’s not simple being out there.”
Oleksy’s penalty may have simply been too much. Florida’s Tomas Kopecky and Washington’s Mike Green were already off for roughing, creating a four-on-four situation, when Upshall set up Oleksy.
“Obviously wasn’t happy with the hit and just wanted to give him a little tap and let him know, and he sold it pretty good,” Oleksy said. “But at that time in the game, I can’t put myself or the team in that situation, to give them a chance to call that. It’s one I’d like to have back.”
On the bench, Oates was aware of two things: the fragility of such a penalty-kill streak, and the foolishness of Oleksy’s decision.
“You can’t lose your cool,” Oates said. “You can’t. It puts the team behind the eight-ball.”
So with 2:38 left, Florida center Jonathan Huberdeau beat out Carlson for a puck behind the Washington net, and it eventually found its way to Tomas Fleischmann. The former Capital beat Neuvirth from a difficult angle. The streak was over, and the Capitals — who had worked so hard a man down for so much of the night — had more work to do.
“Obviously we’d like to be winning in regulation,” Carlson said.
Neuvirth made perhaps his biggest save in regulation just moments after the tying goal, stopping Kopecky from close-in with his glove, and Florida was able to kill off a Washington power play in overtime. The shootout, then, has been Washington’s territory this season. They have not lost one in Oates’s two seasons as coach.
With no Ovechkin to turn to, Mikhail Grabovski went first, and beat Florida’s Scott Clemmensen with a backhand drag move. After Aleksander Barkov beat Neuvirth with a similar move, Brooks Laich came through for Washington, and Neuvirth stopped Huberdeau with his glove.
That left it to Backstrom, who won it. Maybe not the way the Capitals would have preferred. That would have been with one fewer penalty taken, one fewer power play to kill. But without Ovechkin, it was a win nonetheless.