It wasn't always pretty, but the Caps weathered a flurry of Florida shots and scoring chances on Wednesday, coming away with a 4-3 victory thanks largely to a sturdy, 37-save effort from Braden Holtby.
The Caps entered the Thanksgiving Eve contest with just nine goals at 5-on-5 in their previous seven games, and with John Carlson as the only Washington defenseman to register a point in the team's last six games. Jonas Siegenthaler and Radko Gudas changed that, as each had critical primary assists in the latter half of Wednesday's win.
All four lines found the back of the net for Washington, but Holtby's play is the main reason the Caps come away with a pair of points from this one.
Video: Ovechkin, Capitals hold off Panthers
"We made a few mistakes, and they end up costing us at some tough times in the game," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "But we responded in the third, and that's what it's about. Mistakes are going to happen in the game, and it's how you respond to them.
"It was good to see [Lars] Eller's line convert there, and then obviously [Brendan] Leipsic's line as well. Those were two big goals for us, but Braden was definitely the difference tonight."
After a quick start in which they generated some good scoring chances from the middle of the ice, the Caps stepped into some penalty trouble just after the five-minute mark of the first, taking two minors in short succession. They managed to navigate their way through those minors, but also went just under a dozen minutes without generating an even strength shot on goal.
Meanwhile, Holtby stopped all 12 shots he faced in the first, making strong saves on Evgenii Dadonov and Jonathan Huberdeau while Florida was on the power play.
The Caps finished the frame with couple of good minutes, and they grabbed a 1-0 lead with just over two minutes remaining. Washington forced a turnover in neutral ice, and Evgeny Kuznetsov collected the puck and gained the Florida zone, leaving it for Alex Ovechkin in the high slot. Ovechkin carried lower, skirted a defender and cut back to the middle. He took a little something off the fastball, threading a shot through Sergei Bobrovsky's pads with 2:03 left in the first.
Video: FLA@WSH: Ovechkin opens the scoring in 1st period
Florida controlled the play through most of the middle period, and ex-Cap Brett Connolly tied the game at 1-1 with his second goal in as many games against his former employers this season. On the rush, the Caps turned it over high in Florida ice, and Vincent Trocheck sprung Connolly on a breakaway. He deked and beat Holtby to make it a 1-1 game at 11:17 of the middle frame.
The Panthers kept pressing the Caps, pushing for the go-ahead goal. Washington spent most of the second half of the second chasing the Cats and the puck, and with just over a minute left, Siegenthaler got control of the puck behind the Caps' net. At that point, he was merely looking to alleviate pressure, but he spotted Panik out near the Florida line, and lofted a high backhand feed in his direction. Panik corralled the puck, and from the top of the right circle he snapped shot to the top far corner, restoring the Washington lead at 2-1 with exactly a minute remaining.
"Siegs chipped it out, and I was kind of hanging behind their [defense]," recounts Panik. "I got the puck and just tried to shoot it on net. I'm glad it went in."
The lead was short-lived; the Caps weren't even able to get to the second intermission with it. The Panthers entered Washington ice on rush, and Caps defenseman John Carlson broke up a play, but it went right to Mike Hoffman, whose shot got through Holtby's right arm and upper body, tying the game at 2-2 with 37.4 seconds left in the second.
Entering the third period, what little offensive thrust the Caps had in the game came from Kuznetsov's line. That changed too, when Jakub Vrana burst into Florida ice and went wide to the left, putting a shot off Bobrovsky's pad. The puck caromed right to Eller, who backhanded it home for a 3-2 Caps lead at 5:18.
"I think that was the first real chance we had on our line," says Eller. "We didn't play our best game today. For a couple of games, we haven't had the bounces and a little bit of puck luck, and maybe today we had that, especially when we needed it in the third."
Less than seven minutes later, the Caps' fourth line joined the party, chipping in with a critical insurance goal, the prettiest one of the night. Gudas fired a perfect, cross-ice feed, catching Leipsic in stride and springing him into Florida ice with speed. Leipsic beat the defense to the net, and beat Bobrovsky 1-on-1, tucking it neatly through his pads to make it 4-2 at 11:59.
Video: FLA@WSH: Leipsic goes five-hole in 3rd period
"It was kind of a regroup in the neutral zone," says Leipsic. "I was coming back for the puck; I gave it to Siegs, he went D-to-D. Gudes made a great pass, hit me in stride. I was lucky to get a nice little angle, and was fortunate enough it went in for me."
Leipsic's goal loomed larger when Caps killer Vincent Trocheck beat Holtby high from a bad angle with 4:29 remaining.
Veteran Florida defenseman Keith Yandle short-circuited his team's comeback bid in the final minute when he took an offensive zone interference penalty. As Eller went to the bench for a new weapon after breaking his stick, Yandle knocked it from the hands of Caps equipment manager Brock Myles, an unforced error that sealed the deal for the Caps, halting a two-game slide (0-1-1).
Florida's forecheck was relentless, but Holtby kept the Panthers off the board when in mattered, and Washington never trailed in a game in which it was outplayed by a fair bit.
"We did a lot of good things tonight," says Panthers coach Joel Quenneville. "That was a well-played game from our point of view, and we just need some saves to win the game in a game like tonight. We kept getting ourselves back in the game, and doing a lot of good things, so it was a tough loss."