No one at the Xcel Energy Center on Sunday night needed a calendar to tell them that February was gone like a cool breeze, and this was the first day of March. Both the Caps and the Minnesota Wild came in like lions, competing at full tilt for the full 60 minutes.
Alex Ovechkin scored twice and Braden Holtby made 37 saves, and when the dustups and the ice shavings settled, the Caps got out of town with a hard-earned 4-3 victory, ending their road slide at four and halting the Wild's winning run at three.
"It felt heavy," says Wild interim coach Dean Evason of the game. "It was very intense. We liked how our group was engaged in the game, and obviously [the Caps] were."
"That's the style of game I think is going to happen more and more, especially late in the season," says Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov. "I think both teams were very hungry for those points. I think they need them as much as we need those points."
Video: Ovechkin scores twice, Capitals edge Wild
Minnesota was looking to make a three-team leap over Arizona, Winnipeg and Nashvile and vault itself into the final wild card playoff berth in the Western Conference, a perch the Wild hasn't occupied since early December. The Caps were looking to stop their longest road slide of the season, and to pick up their third win in four games as the Metro Division standings continue to tighten behind them.
The game started inauspiciously for the Caps, as they fell down a goal early on a Ryan Donato breakaway. Donato missed the net initially, but retrieved the puck behind the net and bounced it in off Braden Holtby's skate blade at 3:01 of the first.
Sunday's first period was goal filled, and it was also penalty filled. The Wild ran into trouble with the law after Greg Pateryn and Alex Stalock were whistled for minors less than a minute apart in the front half of the first, giving the Caps a two-man advantage for over a minute. Washington took advantage of the opportunity, tying the game on Ovechkin's 5-on-3 goal at 7:21. From his office, he one-timed a John Carlson feed past Stalock.
Video: WSH@MIN: Ovechkin nets one-timer on two-man advantage
Just over three minutes later, the Caps grabbed a lead after winning a board battle in neutral ice. Carl Hagelin won the puck and sent Richard Panik into Minnesota ice. From the right dot, Panik beat Stalock on the far side, putting the Caps up 2-1 at 10:28.
"I was hoping he was going to win that battle," says Panik of Hagelin. "And he won it, and got me pretty much a breakaway, so good job for him."
Thirty-one seconds later, Ovechkin finished a tic-tac-toe passing play from countrymen Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeny Kuznetsov, pounding another one-timer past Stalock for a 3-1 Washington lead at 10:59. The secondary helper is Kovalchuk's first point as a Capital.
"I'm so happy for Kovy," says Ovechkin. "He is playing better and better. For him, it's different system and different teammates, but I think all the team is trying to help him feel comfortable, and you can see he is enjoying it and trying to do the best that he can."
Video: WSH@MIN: Ovechkin one-times Kuznetsov's pass
With Nicklas Backstrom in the box for slashing, the Wild pulled within one on Kevin Fiala's power-play goal at 13:13.
Late in the frame, the tenacity and rancor erupted when the Wild's Ryan Hartman took a healthy two-handed whack at Kovalchuk near the Minnesota net. Kovalchuk came right back at him in earnest, and then Caps defenseman Brenden Dillon and Hartman dropped the mitts and went at it in an entertaining scrap. Each side was assessed 11 minutes worth of penalties in the first.
The middle period was scoreless, and the Caps picked a critical goal in the first minute of the third.
Minnesota's Joel Eriksson Ek was a perfect 9-for-9 on draws in the first 40 minutes, but Kuznetsov beat him on a left dot offensive-zone draw back to Carlson at the right point. Carlson's shot missed, and the Wild collected the puck and attempted to break it out. But Kuznetsov made a nifty play along the half wall to keep it in, feeding Ovechkin for a mini 2-on-1 below the tops of the circles. Ovechkin fed Tom Wilson, who beat Stalock from the inside of the right circle just 40 seconds into the third, restoring the Caps' two-goal cushion at 4-2.
Video: WSH@MIN: Wilson scores off feed from Ovechkin
"It's great play from [Ovechkin]," recounts Wilson. "I think it shows what type of teammate he is; he's got the puck right in the slot with a chance for hat trick, and he dishes it off. I'm lucky to make those ones go in and make them count."
In the back half of the third, Minnesota again closed to within a goal on the power play. A Washington clearing attempt didn't get out, and Wilson lost his footing near the Caps' line, giving Fiala the room he needed to feed Zach Parise at the net front. Holtby stopped his first shot, but he jammed the rebound home at 12:53 to make it a 4-3 game.
Holtby made 16 of his 37 stops in the third period as he notched his third straight win, and Washington's 40th of the season.
"We thought we played the right way," says Evason. "We did a lot of good things in this hockey game against clearly a really good hockey club. But we showed that we were right there."
"We still weren't perfect defensively," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, "but to keep that team at one even-strength goal with how they've been playing, that's a good accomplishment for our team and with where we're at in the process. And then obviously being able to convert on some chances tonight after being shutout [on Thursday], so I liked the overall response from our team tonight."
Video: Reirden Postgame | March 1