In every sport, the best teams are able to win on the road, and they're also able to win on nights when they're not playing to peak capability. The Capitals displayed their abilities on both of those fronts on Sunday night in Chicago, starting off a season-long five-game road trip with a 5-3 win over the Blackhawks.
Special teams made all the difference in Sunday's win. The Caps spent 10 minutes of the contest shorthanded, and they didn't permit a goal on nine shots. They spent eight seconds on the power play, and cashed in on their lone shot, despite losing the offensive-zone draw. Washington also got a critical shorthanded goal from Nic Dowd just seconds into a double-minor penalty killing mission when the game's momentum was hanging in the balance.
Video: Ovechkin, Holtby propel Capitals past Blackhawks
"Special teams tonight was huge for us," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "Getting the shorthanded goal, doing a great job against their power play and then obviously us converting on our opportunity as well. Special teams - I talk about it all the time - was something early in the year that wasn't necessarily where we wanted it to be, and it's been really solid for us the last couple of games."
The Caps used their only power play opportunity of the night to jump out to a 1-0 lead in the first. After Andrew Shaw was boxed for tripping Nick Jensen in the offensive zone, Washington lost the ensuing face-off in Chicago ice. But an Alex Ovechkin hit along the wall forced the Hawks to retreat behind their goal line, where Evgeny Kuznetsov stripped Duncan Keith of the puck, and fed T.J. Oshie in the slot. Oshie beat Corey Crawford with a quick snap shot on the glove side at 10:35, a mere eight seconds after Shaw was seated.
Braden Holtby stopped all 14 shots he faced in the first, including three on a Hawks power play, and three more in the final half minute of the frame. His best stop was probably on Alex DeBrincat from in close with two minutes left.
Second periods have been the Caps' jam this season, but not on this night. The Caps spent much of the frame in their own end, fending off the Hawks. Starting the period on the penalty kill didn't help, either; Washington spent six minutes of the second down a man.
Chicago pulled even just ahead of the midpoint of the middle period when Drake Caggiula buried the rebound of a Ryan Carpenter shot at 8:25. A minute later, the Caps found themselves dealing with more penalty killing woes, as Chandler Stephenson was given a double-minor for hi-sticking in the offensive zone, his first penalty in a span of 75 games.
The Hawks had a great early look on that advantage, but DeBrincat's stick exploded as he tried to fire a one-timer. Seconds later, Washington tore out of its own end on a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush, and Carl Hagelin feathered a perfect feed for Dowd, who notched the first shorthanded goal of his NHL career, restoring the Caps' lead at 2-1 at 9:53.
Video: Postgame | October 20
"Obviously it was a good turning point there," says Dowd. "Unlucky on the four-minute [penalty], but you try and take momentum away anytime you can. Whether it's our power play guys going early with the momentum, and then special teams was a big factor for us tonight."
Washington safely navigated its way through the remainder of the Stephenson double-minor and the middle frame.
The Caps got off to a promising start in the third, finally breaking through at 5-on-5. Michal Kempny's left point shot missed and caromed out to partner John Carlson at the right point. Wasting no time, Carlson fired a sublime feed across to Ovechkin, whose one-timer from his office blazed past Crawford for a 3-1 Caps advantage at 3:52.
But just over two minutes later, the Hawks got it back when Dominik Kubalik buried a rebound seconds after Holtby had denied him twice on that shift.
Clinging to that 3-2 lead, Lars Eller turned the puck over at the Chicago line, floating a backhand feed that was picked off by Alex Nylander and threaded right to Patrick Kane. Kane took off on a 2-on-1 rush, and put a deceptive shot behind Holtby at 9:58, knotting the score at 3-3.
Eller made up for his miscue on his very next shift, carrying into Chicago ice after the Hawks turned it over on an errant breakout. Eller went behind the Hawks net, left it for Hagelin near the left post, and Hagelin found a wide-open Tom Wilson in front for what would prove to be the game-winner at 11:47.
Video: Todd Reirden Postgame | October 20
Chicago pulled Crawford for an extra skater with 2:08 left, and the Hawks worked the Caps in their end for over a minute. But Washington defended well, keeping the puck to the outside before icing it with 62 seconds left. Chicago used its timeout, which also benefited the five Caps who had been on the ice for more than a minute at that point. The Hawks won the draw, but Dmitry Orlov made a play to retrieve the puck in the corner, pushing it along the wall to Eller. From about 170 feet away, Eller lofted a backhander right into the middle of the vacant net, enabling the Caps to get out of town with two points.
"It's a big lift," says Oshie of starting the long road trip with a victory. "It's a long trip, and if you lose the first one, you don't know what happens on the second one. It can make for kind of a tough one.
"So it's nice to get the win in the first one. Obviously maybe not our best game, but we found a way to win. That's encouraging going forward on this long trip."