WASHINGTON -- Since Dec. 4, no team in the NHL had earned more points than the Washington Capitals’ 26 entering their game against the Detroit Red Wings at Verizon Center on Saturday.
Yet even with points in 15 of their previous 16 games, coach Barry Trotz was displeased with Washington’s overall effort recently. But Washington provided Trotz with the spirited performance he had been seeking in a 3-1 victory.
"You saw it in the first shift," he said. "I thought we played a pretty solid game. We were a little bit more no-frills today knowing how diligent Detroit checks and how they can transition. We had to be a little more methodical than we had been."
Troy Brouwer, John Carlson and Joel Ward scored for Washington (22-11-8), which is 12-1-4 in its past 17 games. Goaltender Braden Holtby, playing in his 24th straight game, and making his 18th straight start, made 26 saves.
Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard sustained a groin injury in the first period, exiting the game on a stretcher. Coach Mike Babcock had no update on Howard following the game.
"He'll go back [to Detroit] and get tested and we'll see what happens," Babcock said. "Obviously he looked like he was in great pain."
With the Capitals on a power play in the opening minute, Howard left his crease to settle a puck behind the net. Miscommunication by the Red Wings allowed Brouwer to steal the puck and tuck it in at 1:53 for his 12th goal.
Petr Mrazek replaced Howard and made 12 saves for the Red Wings (22-11-9). Jonathan Ericsson scored Detroit's goal.
"It's obviously a huge momentum boost when you can come out, take it to them and get a goal,” Capitals forward Jay Beagle said. "That’s the way we want to play. It's a fun way to play. We just got to keep doing that."
Howard awkwardly lunged toward the goal in an attempt to make the save and then was unable to get up, requiring assistance to leave the ice. He was named Detroit’s lone representative in the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game earlier Saturday.
"We didn’t look as energized as we usually do," Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar said. "We have to just get ready better and we didn’t have a really good start. [Washington] was just skating better than us. I think we didn’t play as good as we [normally] do and it might be the energy level."
Carlson's goal at 1:35 of the second period capped an impressive rush by the Capitals. Forward Nicklas Backstrom carried the puck into the offensive zone before passing to Andre Burakovsky, who pivoted and spotted Carlson trailing the play for a one-timer. Ward extended Washington’s lead to 3-0 at 11:39, settling a bouncing puck and firing it past Mrazek.
"It's necessary right now with all the other teams that seem to be winning every game," Holtby said of Washington's stretch. "We're happy with our play right now where it's at, but we know we have to improve in order to keep it going. If we want to be an elite team, this shouldn't be a hot streak. This should be a normal streak for us. That's what we’re going to try to accomplish."
Detroit, which did not put a shot on goal in the first 10 minutes of the second period, scored with 12 seconds remaining when Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen's giveaway set up Ericsson's first goal of the season.
Trotz praised the Capitals’ response to the late goal.
"At first, I was like, 'Really?' We should be able to manage that," he said. "But at the same time, I thought you go in there, I think earlier in the season, when that would have happened to us, you would feel a tension in the room. I didn't feel any tension in the room. 'Hey, let's go out and win the third period. Let’s go get on our toes, obviously the next goal could be a big one.'"
The Capitals and Red Wings, who combined for 22 shots through two periods, ratcheted up the intensity in the third. Washington narrowly missed on several scoring chances and Detroit finished with a 15-7 shot advantage. The Red Wings had 68 total shot attempts to the Capitals' 35. Detroit pulled Mrazek with more than two minutes remaining in regulation but could not beat Holtby with six shots on goal.
"It was hard to get the puck to the net even though we attempted 60-some shots or something like that," Babcock said. "It was one of those games. I thought it was a good road game. I thought we gave ourselves a chance, and in saying all that, you've got to score."