With the Carolina Hurricanes in the house on Monday night, the Capitals needed to put forth a response, a bounce back game. Coming off a subpar performance on Saturday night in a 5-1 loss to New Jersey, the Caps came into Monday's match with a two-game regulation slide for just the second time this season.
As they did in a similar situation 11 nights ago against the Canes in Raleigh, the Caps turned to Ilya Samsonov in the nets. Once again, the Russian rookie came through, this time authoring the first shutout of his NHL career, a 23-save whitewash over Carolina in a 2-0 Washington win.
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin supplied the support, scoring twice in the first frame, moving past Hockey Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne (684 goals) for sole possession of 11th place on the NHL's all-time goals ledger in the process. On the 14th anniversary of his first NHL hat trick - against Selanne's former Anaheim employers - Ovechkin did as he did that night at Honda Center in 2006; he provided all of Washington's offense.
But it wasn't just Samsonov and Ovechkin. All 18 skaters were dialed in, and the Caps delivered one of their best 60-minute performances of the last few weeks, playing to their identity and frustrating a Carolina team that strutted into the District on the heels of two straight shutout wins of its own.
Video: Ovechkin, Samsonov lead Capitals to 2-0 victory
"We spent some time and put some work in," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "We weren't happy with our game versus New Jersey at all, and this is what I expected to be our response from our team, a veteran group and a proud group. They were not pleased with their effort, and it was an excellent response."
Leads have been hard to come by for the Caps over the last few weeks, largely because they had surrendered the game's first goal in eight of their previous nine contests and 15 of 20. But they turned that trend around on Monday, coming out with a fair amount of verve right from the opening puck drop.
The payoff came in the form of four first-period power plays - more than the Caps had in 29 of their first 46 games - and a pair of goals from the captain.
Immediately after he deftly broke up a Carolina 2-on-1 rush, Radko Gudas sent Ovechkin off into the Carolina zone. Ovechkin pushed the puck into the left-wing corner, where Tom Wilson rather easily pulled it away from Canes defenseman Jake Gardiner. Wilson threaded the needle, slipping the puck through Ryan Dzingel's skates to Ovechkin, who beat Petr Mrazek from the slot to lift Washington to a 1-0 lead at 11:58 of the first.
"We wanted to simplify a little bit," says Wilson. "We knew we wanted to play hard, get in on the forecheck and if you find Ovi in that area, he usually puts it in the back of the net. It's nice that it went in."
Video: Postgame | January 13
Washington wasn't able to muster a shot on net in either of its first two power plays of the first frame, though it did move the puck around the zone more efficiently on the second of those man advantages.
The third time was the charm.
Most of the players on both sides were engaged in a spirited puck battle along the right-wing half wall in Carolina ice. John Carlson got hold of it, nudging it to the right point where Jakub Vrana was alertly filling in for him. Vrana played the part that Carlson and Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov have played so well over the years, sliding it over to Ovechkin, who launched a shot from above the left circle - so, maybe just outside the door of his office. The shot eluded Mrazek, doubling the Caps' advantage to 2-0 at 17:18.
"Against that team, penalties are not great to take," says Canes captain Jordan Staal. "The first period, we weren't ready to go. And if we're not ready to go, we're going to start taking penalties; we're not moving our feet and we're too slow to pucks. It showed, and 2-0 was all it took. It was an easy game for them after that."
In the second, the penalty pendulum swung in the opposite direction, and Washington found itself killing three minor penalties in a span of less than seven minutes. The Caps spent much of the first half of the middle frame killing penalties and fending off the Canes, and Samsonov made 10 of his 23 stops in the second, six of them coming while the Canes had an extra man. Washington didn't have a shot on net for more than 16 minutes at the start of the second, but it finished the period strong after navigating its way through the penalties.
Early in the third, the Canes took a couple of minors in short succession, giving the Caps 45 seconds worth of time with the two-man advantage. But despite calling timeout to talk it over and winning the offensive-zone draw, the Caps weren't able to threaten in that situation, and they needed Samsonov to make a stop on Carolina's Sebastian Aho while they were still two men to the good.
The Caps stayed disciplined in the third, whittling time off the clock and holding the Canes to seven shots while posting their first shutout in more than 10 months, since Braden Holtby blanked the Devils here last March 8.
"It was important for me," says Samsonov of his first shutout. "Thank you, all team. We played really well; great [penalty kill]. Awesome job, every guy is blocking shots. Great game."
The performance was certainly more to the Capitals' identity than most recent contests. They were assertive, diligent and detailed in all three periods and through all three zones, and the payoff was two points.
"We had more energy," says Wilson, "We played harder, we were winning battles, and that's what it takes against a team that tries to play to that type of identity. So we were able to take it to them tonight and get the job done. It's nice to close out the season's series with a win against those guys."
Video: CAR@WSH: Ovechkin fires home feed for 685th NHL goal