Washington had numerous chances to achieve separation from the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday night at Verizon Center, but it wasn't until after the Coyotes came back to tie the game in the third period that the Caps were able put some distance between themselves and the Desert Dogs.
Daniel Winnik scored twice in the third and helped kill off a critical Coyotes power play, sending the Caps to a 4-1 victory over the Coyotes.
Video: Condensed Game: Coyotes @ Capitals
Less than three minutes after Peter Holland's goal made it a 1-1 game with 7:31 left to play, ex-Coyote Winnik scored what would prove to be the game-winning goal, lifting the Caps to a 2-1 lead at 15:21 of the third.
Justin Williams scored 32 seconds later to give Washington its first multi-goal lead of the night, and Winnik added his second of the game into an empty net to account for the 4-1 final score.
The victory was the Capitals' 31st on home ice this season, establishing a franchise standard, and erasing the old record of 30 established in 1985-86 and matched in 2009-10.
Video: Caps talk after 4-1 win over Arizona
"We feel comfortable playing here in front of family and friends," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. "It's been a great atmosphere and a fun place to play. It's always nice to stay home and get wins."
Ovechkin got his team started before the first stanza was halfway over. Ovechkin drew a hooking call on Coyotes defenseman Alex Goligoski to put Washington on the game's first power play at 7:31 of the first period. A minute later, Ovechkin staked the Caps to a 1-0 lead.
After an Arizona clear, Nicklas Backstrom engineered a re-entry into the Coyotes' zone, pushing the puck around the back of the Arizona net. T.J. Oshie and Marcus Johansson played a quick game of catch with the disc along the right wing half wall, and then the latter returned it to Backstrom, who was stationed below the goal line on the right side. Backstrom exploited a seam, zipping a pass to Ovechkin in his office. From there, No. 8 ripped a wrist shot just over the glove of Coyotes netminder Mike Smith, staking Washington to a 1-0 lead with his 30th goal of the season at 8:31.
Video: ARI@WSH: Ovechkin finishes tic-tac-toe passing play
Ovechkin becomes the third player in NHL history to score 30 or more goals in each of his first dozen seasons in the league. He joins Hockey Hall of Famers Mike Gartner (15 seasons) and Wayne Gretzky (13 seasons) on that short list.
Washington out-attempted Arizona by 28-8 in the first period and 69-46 for the game.
"We were brutal in the first period, to be real honest," says Coyotes coach Dave Tippett. "Then we got our legs under us a little bit. We competed hard from there on in. We made a couple of poor reads by our defenseman that cost us the game."
After Ovechkin's power-play goal, the Capitals had three power play chances, including a double minor midway through the second period when Arizona defender Connor Murphy hi-sticked Ovechkin. The Capitals generated 21 shot attempts during the seven minutes in which they enjoyed the man advantage in Saturday's game, but were only able to get six of those attempts on net.
Smith helped the Coyotes dodge many bullets, and he may have made his best stop when he denied Kevin Shattenkirk on a two-on-none rush in the second period. Meanwhile, the Coyotes weren't able to generate much at the other end of the ice until late in the second period when a strong offensive zone shift yielded Arizona's second power play opportunity of the night.
Washington nursed that 1-0 lead for more than 40 minutes of play, and the Caps got another power play chance midway through the third, but again failed to add to their lead.
Less than half a minute after killing off that Luke Schenn minor, the Coyotes tied the game. Anthony Duclair barreled into Washington ice on a breakaway, and Caps goalie Braden Holtby made a pad stop. But Peter Holland was right there to bury the rebound, making it a 1-1 game with 7:31 remaining in regulation.
"That's classic Coyotes hockey with [Tippett]," says Winnik. "Hang around, hang around and then score on one of your few grade A [scoring chances]. But I thought we did a great job responding. I thought the penalty kill was huge there, and then that led to my goal."
When Holland and Wilson were sent to the box just 29 seconds later, Wilson drew an extra minor, giving the Coyotes a chance to take their first lead of the night. But the Caps' penalty killers got the job done, and less than half a minute after completing the kill, Washington regained the lead for good.
Video: ARI@WSH: Winnik beats Smith for late go-ahead goal
Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov carried from right in front of his own net, fighting off a check in neutral ice and using his strength to headman the puck to Winnik at the Arizona line. The veteran winger carried into the zone and ripped a shot past Smith on the short side to put the Caps up by a goal once again.
Thirty-two seconds after Winnik made it a 2-1 game, Williams took a feed from Shattenkirk and fired a frozen rope of a one-timer into the top shelf to make it a 3-1 game at 15:53.
Video: ARI@WSH: Williams hammers one home to extend the lead
With Smith off for an extra Arizona attacker, Winnik fought his way toward the net and muscled the puck in for his second goal in a span of exactly three minutes. The goal was his 11th of the season - four of them coming against former employers - matching his single-season career best.
"There was a quote earlier [this season] that if I scored against all my other old teams, I'd have more goals," quips Winnik. "I play a couple of them here down the stretch, so hopefully that's the case."
Video: ARI@WSH: Winnik fights off defender for empty-netter
Washington let Arizona hang around for sure, but in the end, the Caps got the two points they needed to stay ahead of their pursuers in the race for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, all while lopping another game off the schedule and another day off the calendar.
"We came out and played really well, " says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "I'll take that first period. They had nothing and we had some good looks. I thought in the second period, we did the same thing. We were all over them.
"We had a fantastic power play that had some really good looks. We were in their zone, and one of their defensemen [Schenn] might have been out there for at least three minutes, he just couldn't get off. We had some great looks and couldn't get the next one."
Video: Coach Trotz talks after a 4-1 win against Arizona
No, they could not. But in the end, the Caps won the special teams battle, and the game.
"The penalty killers did a really good job there, at that end," says Trotz. "I thought it was deserving that Winnie scored there. We got back to five-on-five and he scored. I thought it was fitting that a penalty killer scored that goal right at the end, just because he did a really good job."