NEWARK, N.J. -- It was a slow start for the Washington Capitals but more importantly for them, a strong finish.
Coming after back-to-back games where the effort in the third period was lacking, the Capitals shrugged off a sluggish opening 35 minutes Friday night to earn a 3-1 victory against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center.
"It was kind of a muck-and-grind game, a sloppy game," forward Jason Chimera said. "But we'll take that on the road."
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau was so enraged by a poor third period Tuesday against the Dallas Stars that he punished the team with a grueling 90-minute practice Wednesday. His team didn't make the same mistake again.
Captain Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson both scored opportunistic goals, while Chimera had the game-winner with a superlative individual effort. Toss in 32 saves from goaltender Tomas Vokoun and some excellent work on the penalty kill, and the Capitals are back atop the Southeast Division after the Florida Panthers snuck past them for one day.
"I think we worked ourselves into the game there a little bit in the second period, getting the puck deep and doing all the small things right," Nicklas Backstrom said. "We didn't the turn the puck over that much and then we scored that big goal there by [Ovechkin].
"It is always this type of game against New Jersey. They are a tight team and they clog the neutral zone and it is kind of hard to get through. At the same time, we haven't been playing the good the past two games and this is a step in the right direction."
Added Vokoun: "It was a good comeback after a bad game I had versus the Islanders [a 5-3 loss last Saturday]. I cost the team points that game, so all you can do is come back and put out a strong performance."
It was a night of missed opportunities for the Devils, who play the Capitals in Washington on Saturday in the back end of a home-and-home series. They controlled the play for much of the first period and well into the second, but couldn't convert on any of their five power-play chances, including four in the first 42 minutes before the Capitals took the lead.
"I thought we deserved to have at least a couple at the end of two, but that's what happens when you don't put away good teams," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. "When you let them hang around, that's what can happen."
Ovechkin got the Capitals even at 17:33 of the second period. Backstrom won a faceoff back to Dennis Wideman at the right point. Wideman's shot was going wide, but it hit Ovechkin and dropped to his feet for an easy tap-in after Martin Brodeur had come out to challenge the original shot.
It was Ovechkin's seventh goal of the season, and Backstrom's 20th point to move him into a tie for second in the scoring race behind Toronto's Phil Kessel.
Mike Knuble went to the box early in the third period, but Chimera had a highlight-reel shorthanded goal to push Washington in front at 2:27. He collected the puck along the right wall near his own blue line, then skated past a pair of Devils and around rookie Adam Larsson to cut across to the left in front of Brodeur.
Chimera waited for Brodeur to go down and put a shot past him for his fifth goal of the season.
"If you look through history, and I wouldn't want to do the calculating, but when you score a shorthanded goal in a tight game, that team almost always wins," Boudreau said.
Johansson pushed Washington's lead to 3-1 midway through the third. Karl Alzner's point shot was knocked down in front and came right to Johansson in the slot. He was able to backhand the puck into the net for his sixth goal of the season with ease because Brodeur had committed to the original shot.
Larsson turns 19 on Saturday and gave himself an early birthday present at 13:06 of the first period -- his first NHL goal. Patrick Elias carried the puck behind the Washington net after a faceoff and then sent a shot through the crease. It bounced off the boards to Larsson, who blasted a shot from the top of the right circle past Vokoun.
"I thought [Larsson] was good," DeBoer said. "He got his first goal, which I'm sure was a big relief for him. I liked our whole team. If we can reproduce that type of effort and that type of attention to detail most nights ... we have to find a way to score, and we have to find a way to get our power play going. That's obvious, but we did a lot more right than wrong."
If Boudreau expected a stronger effort in the first 20 minutes against New Jersey, he didn't get it. The Capitals didn't record a shot for more than five minutes and had only three in the first 19:50 before a flurry of three in the final 10 seconds of the period. They attempted only eight shots in the first period.
Boudreau began to shuffle his lines at the start of the second period and continued to move guys around in the final 40 minutes. Two guys who didn't move around much were star forward Alexander Semin and rookie forward Cody Eakin. Neither player took a shift in the final period, and Semin played a total of 16 seconds in the final 35 minutes of the game. Boudreau said Eakin's benching was not for something he did, but Semin's absence was certainly surprising.
The talented forward has long had issues with taking penalties, particularly ones that are often deemed lazy because they happen in the offensive zone, and he was hit with a hooking infraction 10:49 into the first period after he had been stripped of the puck.
"I thought a couple guys weren't going, and I had to change the lines around a bit," Boudreau said. "[Semin] was one of the guys I shortened the bench with. He's a great player, and he's a player we're going to need tomorrow night [against the Devils at Verizon Center], but I just thought that he took another penalty and at the same time there were some plays where I thought he could have done a little bit more and he didn't.
"Again, it was one of those feelings. I've had him for four years now and he just didn't look like had it tonight. I don't think I had done that to him before, but I just thought we had to shorten the bench to get other guys in the game."
Mike Green returned to the lineup after missing six games with a right ankle injury, but he was injured again by a collision with New Jersey's Ryan Carter late in the first period. He was credited with two short shifts early in the second period, but did not play in the final 36 minutes of the contest. The Capitals were 7-0 with Green in the lineup and 2-4 without him before Friday night.
"It is a different soreness. At least it is not the ankle -- that's good news," Boudreau said. "It was a little sore. ... I'm pretty confident [it is not serious]. I talked to him about it already. It is a day-to-day thing, and not a three-week day-to-day thing."