The Capitals bested the hottest team in the league Thursday night with a 4-2 win over Winnipeg. Going into their game against Washington, the Jets had posted a 9-2 record since replacing coach Claude Noel with former Carolina bench boss Paul Maurice.
The Caps, meanwhile, improved to 2-1 during their current homestand, which ends Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils.
During a comeback in the third-period, Alex Ovechkin knocked in a gritty rebound goal – what would prove to be the game-winner – for his 40th of the season. Ovechkin, who has now scored at least 40 goals in six of his nine NHL seasons, is the first player to hit the 40-goal mark this year. He is currently on pace to score over 60 goals. Troy Brouwer and Tom Wilson also scored for Washington.
Fresh defensive call-ups Julien Brouillette, who made his NHL debut against the Jets, and Patrick Wey both recorded their first NHL point in the win. Aside from experienced blueliners Karl Alzner and John Carlson, the bottom four defensemen – Brouilette, Wey, Connor Carrick and Dmitry Orlov – entered the Jets game with less than 120 career NHL games between them.
Despite their inexperience, Brouilette and Wey assisted on the tying goal that began Washington’s three-goal outburst in the final period.
“From what I expected, they were fantastic,” Caps head coach Adam Oates said of his third defensive pairing. “I thought they played really solid.”
After a dismal second period in which they were outshot 16-7, the Capitals knew they had to change their approach to the game.
“We came in (the locker room) after the second period, we were extremely unhappy with the way we were playing,” Brouwer said. “The way we were giving up chances, our execution. It was just poor all around. So, we came out (in the third period), we started winning battles…those are things we need to do to score goals.”
Caps goalie Braden Holtby, who found out he was starting around noon the day of the game because of Michal Neuvirth’s unspecified illness, echoed his teammate’s sentiments.
“You look at the goals that we got, aside from Brouwer’s last one they were goals that you go to the dirty areas for, that you deserve as a team,” Holtby said. “It’s not always easiest to go there and find the puck in those areas, and we did that.”
After proving that they can battle and play the correct way, the key for Washington now is maintaining momentum, something Oates addressed in his post-game comments.
“You look at the other night it was 1-0; 6-5 (versus) Detroit; shootout in Detroit,” he said. “Every night it’s a dog fight, so enjoy (the win) for a little bit, (but) we’ve got to re-energize for Saturday.”
With Ovechkin (Russia), John Carlson (United States), Nicklas Backstrom (Sweden) and Martin Erat (Czech Republic) preparing to leave for Sochi in a matter of days, the Capitals were happy to gain points and momentum before the Olympic break.
While the Caps’ game against the Devils is still their main focus right now, the Olympic spirit was undeniable at the game, with Secretary of State John Kerry taking part in a pre-game ceremony honoring Olympians from Winnipeg and Washington. The pageantry ended with a ceremonial puck drop between Team USA members Carlson and Blake Wheeler.
Brouwer, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in the last Olympic year, discussed how the break for Sochi could impact the season.
“They do a good job of bringing us back more than a week in advance, getting back into practice shape,” he said. “It’s tough to get back into game shape until you play games, but the guys that are at the Olympics, they obviously won’t miss a beat…but the rest of us, we can recharge, relax a little bit and then it’s going to be a hard, hard week of practice to make sure that we’re top notch to go for a playoff run.”
As Holtby notes, the Caps can’t afford to falter between now and the end of the season.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position where each game keeps getting bigger and bigger,” Holtby said. “How we’re going to be successful is if we dumb it down and we just focus on the little things that we need to do to win games…like tonight with crashing the net, getting those dirty goals. That’s what we have to do consistently in order to win games.”
Troy Brouwer slipped a backhand shot past Ondrej Pavelec at 4:56 of the first period for his third goal in six games. Casey Wellman notched his third career NHL point with a secondary assist on the goal.
The Jets knotted the score at one after a defensive zone turnover led to Martin Erat deflecting the puck past his own goalie at 13:02 of the first.
Team USA snub Dustin Byfuglien put the Jets ahead with his 13th goal of the season. Devin Setoguchi dropped a pass to the skilled yet completely uncovered Winnipeg defenseman as he was breaking into the offensive zone. Byfuglien didn’t waste the opportunity, lifting a shot past Holtby’s glove side 5:41 into the second period.
Tom Wilson catalyzed the Caps comeback, tying the score at two just 3:38 into the third period. Recent defensive call-ups Julien Brouillette and Patrick Wey each recorded their first NHL point with assists on the play.
Ovechkin’s 40th goal of the year put the Caps ahead 7:46 into the third period and Brouwer capped the scoring with his second goal of the night at 15:15 of the third period.
While John Kerry received a mix of cheers and jeers from the Verizon Center crowd, Adam Oates expressed his support for the Secretary of State.
“Obviously he’s a great man,” Oates said. “I know him from my Boston days and we have a little history.”