There is no doubt whatever about that. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
OK, enough Dickens. The Caps did beat the Panthers, 4-3, tonight, and for 35 minutes looked as if they might ring up ten on Florida, provided Florida continued to play stupid. The Caps had four power plays in those first 35 minutes and converted three of them. The one they did not was a technicality, failing to score in the last 3:52 of a five-minute power play after scoring 1:08 into the man-advantage.
For the Caps, the game really started with that five-minute power play. Over the first 14 minutes of the first period the Caps played somewhat listlessly, outshot by the Panthers by an 8-6 margin. But then the Panthers went all stupid. It started with an aimless hit by Eric Gudbranson on Martin Erat along the wall in the Panther’s end. Erat had long since moved the puck along, but Gudbranson drove Erat awkwardly into the boards, head first.
As bad as it might have looked, the injury Erat would sustain on the play did not appear to be to his head, at least not the most serious injury. Erat was down for quite some time, and when he was finally helped to his feet, he looked as if he could put no weight on his right leg. Replays showed his legs splayed in directions not provided for by human anatomy as he was going to the ice on the hit. Gudbranson received a five-minute major for boarding and a game misconduct. Warm up the cameras at the NHL Department of Player Safety. Brendan Shanahan is going to be making a video.
The Caps made the Panthers pay on the ensuing five-minute power play when Alex Ovechkin one-timed a pass through the crease by Mike Ribeiro before goalie Jacob Markstrom could react. It would be all the Caps would get on the five-minute power play, but the Panthers went ahead and tested the Caps’ power play again with five seconds left in the first period on a hooking penalty by Quinton Howden. The Caps could not score in those dying seconds of the first period, but they made good on the man-advantage just 43 seconds into the second period.
It started when Alex Ovechkin kept Tyson Strachan’s weak clearing attempt in the offensive zone. Ovechkin fed the puck across from the left point to Mike Green, who fired a slap shot to the long side that hit the post to Markstrom’s right. The puck rebounded right into Markstrom’s backside and slid toward the Florida cage. Mike Ribeiro beat defenseman Brian Campbell to the puck and batted it in for a 2-0 lead.
Less than two minutes later the Caps scored an even-strength goal when Nicklas Backstrom fed Ovechkin at the Panther blue line. Ovechkin skated in on defenseman Filip Kuba and tried to curl and drag the puck around Kuba. The defenseman managed to poke the puck aside, but in doing so was not in position to keep Ovechkin from darting around him, picking up the puck on the other side, and roofing a forehand over Markstrom’s glove.
The Caps made it 4-0 in the period’s 15th minute when Florida took another penalty, this time a slashing call against Dmitry Kulikov. The Caps scored by working the puck around the diamond in the 1-3-1. Mike Green held the puck at the top of the Florida zone, pulling Scott Timmins across as Green skated along the blue line. Green fed Nicklas Backstrom, who eased up along the wall to cover the right point. Backstrom fed Marcus Johansson along the goal line to Markstrom’s left, and Johansson threaded a pass across for Ovechkin to one-time the puck past Markstrom’s blocker for the hat trick.
At that point it looked as if the Caps might run the Panthers out of their own rink, but they took their foot off the pedal a bit. It almost cost them. Florida scored 6:45 into the third period to ruin goalie Braden Holtby’s shutout. Then the Panthers scored less than two minutes later to make things interesting. When Tomas Kopecky scored off Holtby’s hip with 32.7 seconds left in regulation, what was unthinkable in the second period – a blown four-goal lead – looked possible. But the Caps held the Panthers without a shot on goal in that last 32.7 seconds, and the Caps reclaimed the top spot in the Southeast Division with a 4-3 win.
-- OK, let’s do the numbers… the hat trick for Ovechkin is his 12th of his career and second this season. He is third in Capitals’ history, now one behind second-place Mike Gartner. The three goals give Ovechkin 23 for the season, now tied for second in the league with John Tavares, two behind leader Steven Stamkos. He now has 14 goals in his last 13 games. And, with four points on the night he is tied for seventh in total points (41) with Carolina’s Eric Staal and Edmonton’s Taylor Hall.
-- Overshadowed, perhaps, in Ovechkin’s four-point night is the fact that Nicklas Backstrom had three assists. That makes eight helpers in his last three games and 14 in his last 11 contests. Backstrom is now third in the league in assists, behind Sidney Crosby and Martin St. Louis, and he is tied for 11th in total scoring (39 points) with Toronto’s Nazem Kadri.
-- Mike Ribeiro ended a personal four-game drought without a point with a goal and an assist. It was his first multi-point game since recording a pair of assists in a 6-1 win over Winnipeg on March 22nd. He had only a single assist over his last six games before tonight.
-- Speaking of multi-point games, Marcus Johansson had a pair of assists, giving him his sixth multi-point game in his last 11 contests. Over that time he is 3-11-14.
-- With all that scoring firepower, it was Mike Green who led the Caps in shot attempts with nine. But hitting the post on a shot was as close as Green would get to extending his goal-scoring streak to five games.
-- Twice in the last 19 seconds Ovechkin failed to convert on shots at an empty net. That makes Ovechkin 0-for-6 at empty net shot attempts this season.
-- Since going three straight games without a power play goal in late February and early March, the Caps – with their 3-for-5 effort tonight – are 16-for-60 (26.7 percent) on the power play over their last 17 games. They have power play goals in 12 of those 17 games and a record of 9-2-1 in those games.
-- The Caps are now 6-0-1 over their last seven road games.
-- 15 of Florida’s 18 skaters were credited with hits… 16, if you count Gudbranson’s boarding of Erat.
-- Braden Holtby might be faulted in some circles for allowing three goals late, but if he doesn’t make a stop on a point-blank shot by Scott Timmins two minutes into the game, this one might have ended very differently. Why?...
-- Because Florida was 10-3-2 when scoring first. As it turned out, they didn’t score first, and since they were 2-16-4 when allowing the first goal coming into this game, it was an opportunity wasted. Now, they are 2-17-4.
In the end, the book is closed on the Caps-Panthers rivalry as Southeast Division opponents. The Caps took the season series by a 22-9 margin. This might have been among the prettiest games of the season for the Caps, based on the first 35 minutes. But the Caps let the Panthers back into it late. Still, one had the feeling that this game was not nearly as close as the final score indicated. And at this time of the year, two points is two points. The takeaway is that the big guys are playing like the big guys, and if that continues, the Capitals appear likely – as unlikely as it was a month ago – to win the last Southeast Division banner to be awarded.