In a crucial game against a non-playoff team, the Washington Capitals staved off a late push from the Florida Panthers on Saturday night to escape Sunrise, FL with a 4-3 victory. Alexander Ovechkin recorded his second hat trick of the season as the Caps took a 4-0 lead inside the first two periods, only to allow three goals inside the final 14 minutes of regulation to the struggling Panthers.
Despite a shaky third frame, Braden Holtby earned his 17th win of the season in a 23-save effort. Mike Ribeiro also scored and Nicklas Backstrom earned three assists, while Marcus Johansson added two assists and Ribeiro and Mike Green also recorded helpers.
Capitals captain Ovechkin is peaking at perhaps the best possible time for his franchise as it attempts to slip into a playoff berth. His trio of goals has vaulted him into third in the NHL in goals, with 23, and more importantly has powered Washington’s offense over its past 13 games, with 14 goals in that span.
Ovechkin’s first goal of the game was a one-timer from the left circle on the power play, his signature shot. The opportunity was enabled late in the first period by a massive hit delivered by Florida defenseman Eric Gudbranson on Capitals newcomer Martin Erat, which earned Gudbranson a five-minute major and game misconduct, and Erat a lower-body injury that took him out of the game.
The extent of Erat’s injury was unclear immediately, as the winger appeared to hit his head on the boards at the same time his legs awkwardly splayed open where they impacted the dasher. A long-term injury to Erat would be problematic for Washington, especially after second-line left wing Brooks Laich didn’t accompany the Capitals on their brief road trip to Florida due to an undisclosed injury suffered in Thursday night’s game against the New York Islanders.
Just as Washington’s first goal came on the power play, so did their second, a Mike Ribeiro tip-in off a shot by Mike Green that hit the left post behind Markstrom, just 43 seconds into the game’s middle stanza.
All season long the power play has been one of Washington’s strengths, and the league’s top-ranked unit feasted on the Cats’ league-worst penalty kill. Three times in five attempts the Caps pierced Florida’s Markstrom while possessing a man advantage. Ovechkin added D.C.’s third power play goal, his third of the game and the eventual game-winner, on another slap shot from the left circle that was almost a mirror image of his first of the game.
In between those two extra-man strikes, Ovechkin increased his team’s lead to 3-0 on one of his prettiest individual efforts of the season. Carrying the puck across the Florida blue line, Ovechkin attempted to toe-drag around Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov. The defender stripped the puck from Ovechkin, but undaunted the captain continued his path around Kulikov’s body, lift-checked his stick to steal the puck back, and zipped a wrist shot over Markstrom’s left shoulder just inside the crossbar.
Cradling a four-goal lead, Washington dropped into a more defensive posture in the third period, and seemed to lose interest in the game at points. Florida pounced on the increase in opportunities to make the game’s result far more questionable than anyone in a Caps uniform would have liked.
Panthers forward Tomas Kopecky broke Holtby’s shutout attempt seven minutes into the third period when he blasted a slap shot from the right half-boards that beat Holtby high, blocker side. Six minutes later, Peter Mueller backhanded a loose puck in the slot over Holtby’s shoulder as Washington’s defenders scrambled to recover in the slot. Mueller’s goal came on a Florida power play, only their second of the game.
Despite the Florida comeback, things still looked comfortable for the Capitals in Sunrise until Kopecky netted his second of the game with 33 seconds left in regulation and Markstrom on the bench for an extra skater. After Holtby chested down an outside shot by Shawn Matthias, Green fumbled his clearing attempt and Kopecky popped it off Holtby’s back and into the net.
Although Ovechkin would subsequently miss an empty net to guarantee the victory, Washington nonetheless succeeded in holding off Florida’s ultimate push to leave the state of Florida a 4-3 winner.
Backstrom provided the secondary assist on Ovechkin’s third goal, his third helper of the game. With 33 assists on the season, Backstrom sits behind only Sidney Crosby and Martin St. Louis in the NHL in that statistical category, and joined Ovechkin in the top 10 in total points in the league.
In terms of league-wide numbers, however, all the Washington Capitals really care about after Saturday night’s game is the number 40, which is their points total in the Southeast Division race. The Caps sit atop the division, which comes with an automatic playoff berth. After spending much of the season in the conference gutter, Washington could have ill afforded to pass on the opportunity to accumulate more points Saturday night in Florida, nor can they afford to drop any points Sunday night when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning in D.C. Only ten games remain in the regular season, and Washington will likely need to take minimum 12 of 20 possible points over that span to remain in the playoff picture.
Abram Fox is the Washington Capitals Page Editor for District Sports Page. He has been covering the Capitals from the press box since the 2007-08 season.