WASHINGTON - Through the first seven games of the season, Washington Capitals forward Martin Erat found himself in unfamiliar territory -- playing on the fourth line in a diminished role.
With Washington's even-strength offense sputtering through the first two-plus weeks of the season, coach Adam Oates reconfigured his lines before Saturday's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, giving Erat his first opportunity for top-six ice time.
The 32-year-old made the most of his chance. Erat assisted on three of Washington's goals, and his new linemates, Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer, each scored their second goals of the season as the Capitals defeated the Blue Jackets 4-1 Saturday night in the teams' first meeting as Metropolitan Division rivals.
"Marty's a good hockey player, has been in this League," Oates said of Erat, who was acquired from the Nashville Predators in April. "He and I talked a couple weeks ago and we had a heart-to-heart conversation. It was difficult. I know he talked to [general manager] George [McPhee]. He played great for us tonight, and that's what being a pro is all about."
Erat downplayed his personal accomplishments, instead focusing on the victory.
"It's nice to have a good game, but in the end, it's all about the wins," he said. "And we got the win and that's the bottom line."
Saturday's win gave the Capitals a 2-3-0 mark on their five-game homestand. They begin a five-game road trip Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.
The first period was a feeling-out process for both teams; Washington and Columbus entered Saturday's game having not played each other in nearly two years. The Capitals caught a break midway through the period when Ryan Johansen broke in behind the defense and beat Braden Holtby but rang his shot off the right post.
Three days removed from a 2-0 loss to the New York Rangers, Washington struck first less than two minutes into the second period.
On the Capitals' first power play of the game, Joel Ward finished what a tic-tac-toe passing sequence from Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom, beating Sergei Bobrovsky at 1:58 with a one-timer from the slot for his second goal of the season. Ward misfired on perhaps the Capitals' best chance against the Rangers when he whiffed on an open net during a 5-on-3 power play.
Brooks Laich doubled the lead at 7:43 after a slick move by Steve Oleksy, who collected a pass from Erat along the right-wing boards, curl-and-dragged around Cam Atkinson and put a shot on net. Bobrovsky made the initial save but couldn't control the rebound, and Laich swept the puck into the net on his backhand.
"That one surprised me," Oates joked about Oleksy's dangle. "I was a little panicking for a second, but great play."
Erat set up Brouwer's goal 4:20 into the third period by intercepting Nikita Nikitin's pass around the goal line. Bobrovsky stopped Brouwer's rip from the slot but Brouwer scored on the rebound.
Columbus forward R.J. Umberger said Brouwer's goal was a back-breaker.
"They got that third one and it just cracked us, I guess," he said. "We turned the puck over. They capitalized on their chances tonight and we didn't. That's kind of the name of the game. We had plenty of chances, but we didn't score on any of them."
Alex Ovechkin extended the lead to 4-0 with his team-leading seventh goal at 6:34 on a power-play one-timer from his usual spot in the left circle. Holtby made 37 saves but lost his shutout when Artem Anisimov scored with 4:55 remaining.
While the Capitals were pleased with the victory, they were not completely satisfied with their overall play,
"It still doesn't have the feeling of last year in the second half of the year," Oates said, referring a 15-2-2 stretch run that carried the Capitals to their seventh Southeast Division title. "I still think we have too many breakdowns in our end, but I'm glad the guys got a win. It's been a tough homestand."
Columbus coach Todd Richards was blunt about his team's performance after the Blue Jackets lost their fourth in a row.
"We unraveled," he said." I think even after those first two goals, we started to go after them, but we weren't good enough. We got what we deserved."