After a bumpy start, the Capitals kicked their game into gear and earned a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday night in South Florida. Alex Ovechkin reached the 500-assist plateau for his NHL career and reached 30 goals for the 13th consecutive season, Braden Holtby earned his 25th victory of the season, and - most importantly from a Washington perspective - the Caps ended a brief three-game slide (0-1-2).
"I thought we played pretty well tonight," says Caps defenseman John Carlson, the game's first star. "A few too many turnovers in the first, and then maybe with 10-12 minutes left in the third, I think we could have gotten it deep a little bit better and grind it out when we're up. But other than that, good work ethic and when you draw that many penalties (six), it's for a reason, usually."
Video: Ovechkin's milestone night leads Caps past Panthers
Playing its only game in a span of nine days and getting back to action after yet another three-day break, Washington got off to an inauspicious start in Thursday's game. The Caps took a trio of minor penalties over a span of just five minutes in the first half of the first frame.
Seconds after successfully navigating their way through the penalty quagmire, the Caps surrendered the game's first goal for the seventh straight contest. Florida's Denis Malgin got the Panthers on the board with a shot from the slot that beat Holtby at 11:02 of the first period, just 27 seconds after the Caps killed off their third straight minor penalty in short succession.
Washington got even before the first frame was over, as the Caps connected on the power play with 2:35 remaining. Spotting Nicklas Backstrom parked near the back door at the left post, Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov tried to thread the needle with a cross-cross pass, but just missed. Seconds later, Ovechkin fed the puck back to Kuznetsov, who tried the exact same feed. This time, it was perfect, and Backstrom administered the tap-in finish to make it a 1-1 game and lift Ovechkin to 500 assists.
Video: Caps 365 | January 25
"It's awesome, it's great," says Backstrom of Ovechkin's latest milestone. "I've been playing with him for a long time and I'm just happy for him. He's a great hockey player, he can do it all, and I think it's a nice milestone for him. A lot of guys see him as a goal scorer, but he's a good passer, too. A nice achievement by him, and I'm happy for him."
Malgin restored the Panthers' lead with his second of the game at 6:40 of the second, making Washington pay for a failed clearing attempt.
The Capitals responded just 71 seconds later when Ovechkin - parked in front of the Florida cage - got a stick on a Brooks Orpik's floater from the left point and deflected it past Florida netminder Harri Sateri, who was making just his second career NHL start. Ovechkin's 30th goal of the season made it a 2-2 game at 7:51 of the second. Ovechkin's goal was the Caps' first at five-on-five in a span of eight periods.
When Washington's Tom Wilson made a nifty feed to set up a Carlson snipe shot from the slot at 17:38 of the second, it gave the Caps a 3-2 lead, their first lead of the night and their first scoreboard advantage since Jan. 12, when Jay Beagle's late goal - with 1.3 seconds remaining in regulation - gave Washington a 3-2 lead.
Kuznetsov drew a tripping call on Florida's Aaron Ekblad at the 20-minute mark of the second, giving Washington a full two-minute power play opportunity at the start of the third. The Caps made good with the chance, as Washington's second power play unit chipped in with a rare tally. Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky combined to set up Brett Connolly's 13th goal of the season - and his fourth on the power play - at 1:52 of the third.
Video: Postgame Locker Room | January 25
Florida was guilty of a couple of infractions on the same play - and Alexander Petrovic fought with Wilson - at the 4:33 mark of the third, giving the Caps just their second two-man advantage of the 2017-18 season, a full two-minutes worth of a five-on-three power play.
The Caps generated seven shots on net during those two minutes, and they hit the post with another drive, but were unable to add to their lead. It didn't matter as the Caps had all the goals they'd need already, but they kept pumping pucks at the Panthers' net anyway, firing a total of 19 shots in the third and a season-high 46 on the night.
Video: Barry Trotz Postgame | January 25
"I thought special teams were good," says Caps coach Barry Trotz."Obviously our penalty kill was really good early, and we were able to not give [the Panthers] any momentum. And then we got a power-play goal there.
"I thought at five-on-five tonight we were better tonight, once we stayed out of the penalty box. We just stayed with it."
With Thursday's win, the Caps expanded their lead in the Metropolitan Division standings to six points over second-place Pittsburgh as the league breaks for its All-Star Game. The Penguins hopped into second with their Thursday night victory over Minnesota. Washington has two games in hand on Pittsburgh, and it will make its first visit to the Steel City on Feb. 2 in its second game after the All-Star break.