In a crucial late-season game against one of the best teams in the NHL, in one of the toughest arenas to play in on the road, the Washington Capitals charged to an early three-goal lead and held off a furious comeback by their unwelcome hosts to drop the Detroit Red Wings by 5-3 margin.
Alexander Ovechkin scored twice on the power play in the first period, and Washington held a three-goal lead less than 15 minutes into the game. Mike Knuble, Keith Aucoin, and Jason Chimera also scored and weekend call-up Braden Holtby made 30 saves to earn the win in his second start of the season.
The opening 20 minutes on Monday night was perhaps the finest first period the Caps have strung together all season. It was certainly the highest-scoring: Washington hadn’t scored three goals in a first period since November 14, 2010, a span of 136 games.
Even more unexpected was the fact that the Capitals’ first period success was generated largely through the power play, where Dale Hunter’s squad has struggled all season long while on the road. Washington was 28th in the league on the power play on the road coming into Monday night, converting just 12.7% of opportunities.
When Marcus Johansson fed Ovechkin with a beautiful pass in the slot for a one-timer that blasted over Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard’s right shoulder 7:48 into the game, it certainly didn’t look like a 28th-ranked power play at work.
That goal was Ovechkin’s 31st of the season, and seven minutes later the Washington captain added his 32nd to close out a wild scrum in front of Howard’s net. Alex Semin took the initial shot from the outside, and though Brooks Laich’s attempt to stuff the puck past Howard failed, Ovechkin was there to sneak in from the slot, drag the puck to his right to get wide of the goalie and snap it into the open net to cap Washington’s scoring in the first period.
After converting on three of four opportunities against the Red Wings, the Caps are now 20th in the league in road power play conversion, at 14.9%.
Last week Washington came back from deficits of 3-0 and 4-1 to force overtime and eventually win in the shootout, and Detroit put together a furious effort in the third period to replicate that effort. In the second frame Kyle Quincey beat Holtby with a power play slapshot to cut Washington’s lead before Aucoin extended the Caps’ margin again to three with a quick wrist shot from the front of the net after Quincey blew his coverage.
Just 36 seconds into the final period of regulation, Todd Bertuzzi cut into Washington’s lead when he pounced on a loose rebound at the top of the crease and knocked it past Holtby before the goaltender could cover it up with his glove.
All evening long Holtby demonstrated trouble controlling loose pucks and responding to the lively endboards in Joe Louis Arena, and his rebound control issues came back to haunt him later on in the period. Sliding to block a shot by Brendan Smith, Holtby exposed his five-hole and Smith’s shot bounced off the inside of the goalie’s leg, gliding into the crease for Daniel Cleary to hammer it home to cut Washington’s lead to 4-3.
Coming into the game Washington boasted a 21-0-0 record when leading after two periods, but none of those games were on the road against a team with a home record as good as Detroit’s 28-4-2 record.
It seemed that the tying goal was inevitable when Knuble committed a tripping infraction in the offensive zone with 3:15 to play in the third, but Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg nullified that advantage when he held Mike Green while breaking into the zone a minute later, and Washington was able to hold out and then Chimera added the empty net, power play goal with 21 seconds left to seal the deal.
Although Washington and Detroit were Norris Division rivals for the first five seasons of the Capitals’ existence, and faced off in the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals, the two teams rarely meet each other in the regular season. Monday night’s win was Washington’s first since a 4-1 win on November 24, 2003, when Rastislav Stana earned his only career NHL win.
Winger Alex Semin earned assists on Washington’s third and fourth goals, his second of the game also his 400th career point. Semin is the 15th player to hit that milestone in a Capitals uniform. Marcus Johansson also earned two assists on the night, and Dennis Wideman, Laich, Knuble, Chimera, and Mathieu Perreault added helpers as well.
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.