Of course it came down to a power play. On a rare night when captain Alex Ovechkin wasn’t in the lineup, the Washington Capitals’ hopes for snapping their longest losing streak in five years rested on a man-advantage missing their most dangerous shooter. Naturally, it was a different Russian who sniped the puck past goaltender Mike Smith, with center Evgeny Kuznetsov picking the top corner of the net with less than a minute left in the game.
It’s fitting that this 4-3 win over the Calgary Flames was how the Capitals’ seven-game losing streak ended: the hard way. Washington was without its captain and the NHL’s goal-scoring leader; Ovechkin was serving a one-game suspension for skipping the All-Star Game. Then third-line center Lars Eller went down early in the second period with an undisclosed lower-body injury, leaving the team short on forwards for the rest of the night. And on the opposite bench was the team with the best record in the Western Conference.
But the Capitals finally put together the right ingredients that had been missing since their last win, more than three weeks ago. There was secondary scoring with goals from Nic Dowd and Dmitrij Jaskin, and there was stout goaltending with Braden Holtby’s 27 saves. Washington won the special teams battle, killing off its two penalties before Kuznetsov’s timely power-play goal.
“Often there are going to be tough moments, and you need to get through them,” forward Tom Wilson said. “It makes it that much better to get it done.”
The Capitals had played a near-perfect game without Ovechkin going into the third period, clinging to a 3-2 lead. A penalty kill that has struggled this season weathered two Flames power plays in the first 10 minutes of the frame. Then 12:01 into it, Elias Lindholm tipped Johnny Gaudreau’s shot in front to tie the game. Washington got its opportunity to take back the lead when Mikael Backlund was called for holding with 1:58 left in regulation, putting a power play on the ice that was missing Ovechkin firing one-timers from the left faceoff circle.
The team had fallen short on its first three tries, but as Kuznetsov carried the puck into the offensive zone, he briefly considered passing to forward T.J. Oshie before shooting it himself. Because Eller got hurt, Coach Todd Reirden double-shifted Kuznetsov, who skated more than 24 minutes for the game.
“I thought he had an excellent game,” Reirden said. “He deserved to be out there every other shift.”
Ovechkin had played in 214 straight games before Friday, and he has missed just four games since the start of the 2014-15 season, all losses for the Capitals. But while Washington struggled despite being at nearly full strength over the past month, the team was playing well and racking up wins when it was hit with injuries to top forwards Kuznetsov, Oshie and Wilson in November and December. The Capitals responded to adversity again to start Friday’s game, getting contributions from the third and fourth lines.
Just three minutes into the game, Dowd, the team’s fourth-line center, tipped defenseman John Carlson’s shot for the first goal and his fifth of the season. With both clubs playing their first game after more than a week off the ice for the All-Star Game and bye week, Reirden said he expected a sloppy start, but his Capitals looked like a team hungry to end its losing streak, even with the captain out of the lineup. In a show of commitment, Washington blocked 13 shots in the first period alone — and all were at even strength.
Before the break, players had rejected the idea that last season’s long run to the Stanley Cup had led to midseason fatigue, but they then admitted to feeling refreshed after the time off. They might have been mentally worn down, too, often making mistakes at inopportune times, such as allowing a goal in the last minute of a period. But on Friday night, Washington got one of those to go in its favor. After Backlund tied the game 17:37 into the first period, Eller took multiple whacks at a puck in the crease before Jaskin swatted it in to lift the Capitals to a 2-1 lead with 36 seconds until intermission.
“The bye week give us lots of positive emotions,” Kuznetsov said. “Sometimes I feel like, especially the last 20 games, we really feel like we don’t have a summer, you know? We were just playing hockey, playing hockey. As long as you win, you feel unbelievable, but then when things not going well, you start getting nervous a little bit.”
It took less than a minute into the second period for Washington to add to its cushion. Kuznetsov stripped Matthew Tkachuk of the puck, and then Jakub Vrana set up Wilson in the right faceoff circle for a 3-1 lead. It lasted less than two minutes. A point shot from defenseman T.J. Brodie deflected off Derek Ryan and then Garnet Hathaway to beat Holtby. A porous defense in front of Holtby had compounded his struggles during the losing streak, and entering Friday’s game, Washington had the worst even-strength save percentage (.871) in the league over the previous 10 games.
But with the team in front of Holtby playing better, he did, too, backstopping the Capitals to win that was just as unlikely as it was needed.
“We base our team’s success off of the system that we play and the trust that we have in each other as opposed to one or two people’s individual skill,” he said. “Everyone on our team can get the job done, and tonight we executed enough to come out on top.”
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