“He said just quit trying to use your skill, and use your will a little bit more.” Brooks Laich, on what Dale Hunter told the team at second intermission.
It’s a tough way to win, but the Washington Capitals will take every two points they can right now. After one of their worse periods of hockey this season, they played one of their best. They tied the game with just under four minutes remaining, then got the winner from their captain with just 51 seconds left in overtime, sending the Tampa Bay Lightning home losers 3-2.
With Florida’s loss to Philadelphia, the Caps are just two points out of first place in the Southeast Division.
The Caps took the first lead, when a shot from the point by Karl Alzner hit Keith Aucoin’s stick and redirected past Tampa goalie Dustin Tokarski, making his first NHL start. Alzner’s shot would not have gone on net, and Aucoin had his back to the play, being spun around by Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman.
The second period saw the Lightning score two power play goals on three attempts, hold their opponents to just three shots on goal, and generally dominate a team on the brink of elimination from the playoff chase. Everything that could go wrong for the Caps in the second, did.
In the third, everyone and their mother expected Tampa bay to come out and sit in a trap, content in letting the Caps try to control play through a muddied neutral zone. The Lightning completely took their foot off the gas, preferring to rely on stifling defense to protect a one-goal lead. Their hubris was their downfall.
With their season on the line, the Capitals came out of the dressing room on fire. Instead of falling for Tampa’s trap, they were content in playing “chip and chase” hockey in the third period against Tampa’s 1-3-1 neutral zone trap until the Lightning defenders got tired chasing them down or made a mistake with the puck.
That mistake came with just under four minutes to play, as Dennis Wideman made a smart pinch along the boards at the end of a long Tampa shift, forcing a turnover. Wideman was able to get enough on the puck to push it to a wide open Marcus Johansson in the slot, who then beat Tokarski five-hole to even things up.
Tampa got a scoring chance on the very next shift (their first shot on goal of the entire period), but Tomas Vokoun, as he had been all evening, was up to the task. The veteran netminder, making his first start in seven games, was solid. Honestly, he kept the Caps in the game during the brutal second period.
All that was left was for Alex Ovechkin to do what he does best. Jason Chimera did some very good work to keep the puck in the zone against a tired Lightning shift, finally hitting Dmitry Orlov in the high slot. Orlov looked Tokarski off, freezing the rookie, then hit a wide open Ovechkin near the right wing dot on the tape, and Ovechkin buried it in the yawning goal.
So what did Dale Hunter tell the Capitals during the second intermission to fuel the comeback?
“You know, just, we gotta go out and work hard,” he said in an aw-shucks kind of way, to the amusement of the press corps. “We just had to get the pucks in deep and work. There’s not going to be the two-on-ones, the three-on-twos where you can make pretty plays. We just had to get it in deep and work and create scoring chances. Chip and chase.”
The players told a different story.
Ovechkin, during the post-game interview for Comcast Sportsnet, said Hunter gave them a “hard time,” between periods, but “We win. That’s the most important thing.”
“His message was just to man up,” said defenseman Karl Alzner. “Play hard and play as a team. He yelled at us pretty much for one of the first times that he has ever yelled at us and the guys just snapped out of it.”
Brooks Laich paraphrased Hunter’s message. “He said just quit trying to use your skill, and use your will a little bit more.”
The Capitals will need to rely on that will in the coming days and it will be tested. They head to Boston to take on the high-scoring Bruins on Saturday, then return Sunday to host the free-falling Toronto Maple Leafs. After that, they take to the road for nine days and five games, with stops on Long Island, Winnipeg, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia.
How they play on that road trip will most definitely determine their chances for a playoff seed. Winning last night, however, makes that road trip still meaningful.
CAPS NOTES: Mike Green will have a disciplinary hearing with NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan Friday for a hit on Tampa forward Brett Connolly. Connolly was tied up with Orlov behind the Caps goal, and Green sized him up and landed an elbow or forearm to Connolly’s head. Connolly stayed down for several minutes before leaving the ice under his own power. Green was inexplicably not penalized on the play, and thankfully Connolly returned later in the game. Green has a previous suspension for elbowing Michael Frolik of the Florida Panthers in January, 2010.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.