WASHINGTON – With the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic and the pressure it created behind them, the Washington Capitals returned to Verizon Center on Sunday to face the Florida Panthers.
The Capitals avoided any sort of disappointment, winning for the 10th time in 14 games in a 4-3 victory.
In preparing for the Panthers and guarding against a potential letdown after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks on New Year’s Day, the Capitals pointed to the Panthers’ proximity to them in the Eastern Conference standings; Florida trailed Washington by two points in the wild-card race entering play Sunday.
“Maybe with a younger team, I think maybe that would be more of a trap game for a younger team,” Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I think with the experience that we have in the room, that wasn’t going to happen.”
Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, Karl Alzner and Andre Burakovsky scored for Washington (20-11-7), which has earned points in all but one game since Dec. 4 (10-1-3). Goaltender Braden Holtby made 29 saves.
“We are doing a lot of the right things and playing sometimes a boring style of hockey, but it’s the winning style of hockey and its way more fun playing that way for us,” Alzner said.
Vincent Trocheck, Dylan Olsen and Nick Bjugstad scored for Florida (17-11-9). Defenseman Aaron Ekblad had one assist, setting the Panthers franchise record for points by a rookie defenseman with 22.
Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo made 18 saves before leaving the game prior to the third period with an upper-body injury. Al Montoya made four saves in relief.
“We weren’t good enough,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “I mean, we battled back and found a way to come close there at the end, but not good enough. We didn’t play hard enough. They were more physical than we were tonight. They wanted the puck battles and that’s why we ended up losing the game at the end.”
The Capitals were lively in the first period, taking 26 shot attempts to Florida’s 10, including eight on goal.
Late in the period, Ovechkin barreled into the offensive zone in pursuit of a loose puck. Luongo raced to it in an attempt to poke it away and the two collided at high speed with 6:23 remaining, knocking the Panthers goaltender to the ice. Luongo remained down for a few moments, but stayed in the game until the start of the third period.
“It was a mutual decision just to keep me out for precautionary reasons so nothing more than that,” Luongo said. “It was just best, I think, to sit out the third and make sure everything is okay.”
Ovechkin gave the Capitals a 1-0 lead at 1:16 of the second period, converting a backdoor pass from Nicklas Backstrom for his 19th goal of the season and eighth on the power play.
The Panthers swiftly responded with two goals in a 1:25 span. A three-player pileup in Washington’s offensive zone involving Mike Green, Jack Hillen and Evgeny Kuznetsov presented Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen with a 2-on-0 rush. Holtby stopped Trocheck’s first shot and Willie Mitchell’s follow-up chance, but Trocheck knocked the puck in at 3:57 to tie the game.
Olsen scored at 5:22; his wrist shot changing direction after striking Orpik in front of the goal.
By the end of the period, the Capitals had regained the lead on goals from Laich and Alzner.
Laich’s slap shot from outside the left circle slipped through Shane O’Brien’s legs and past Luongo at 12:13. Alzner scored his career-high third goal of the season with Luongo blinded by heavy traffic to help Washington reclaim a 3-2 lead with 54 seconds left in the period.
“We always felt [Alzner] had a little more offense,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “I think Karl sat back a little bit and played a very, very safe game. I think what we’ve done this year, he’s seeing that we’ve got good structure, structure allows [him] to jump up at certain times. … He’s just getting it on net and it’s been good.”
Burakovsky padded the Capitals’ lead at 5:42 with his fifth goal of the season and first since Nov. 28, scoring off a pass from Ovechkin at the doorstep.
At 11:04, Washington then faced a 5-on-3 disadvantage for 47 seconds after consecutive penalties on defensemen John Carlson and Orpik, Washington’s shorthanded ice-time leaders, which they ultimately killed.
“You’ve got to come up with some big blocks,” Orpik said. “You’ve just got to have guys that are willing to take some shots in some not-great areas, sacrifice that way and I think guys are doing that. Obviously not to put too much pressure on him, but your goalie’s got to be your best penalty killer and [Holtby’s] been awesome for a long time now.”
Bjugstad scored from a sharp angle at 18:01, cutting Florida’s deficit to 4-3. The Panthers pulled Montoya, but could not tie the game.
“We’ve got a playoff spot, but [Florida] is a team that I think had a game or two at hand on us and they are trailing us, so that was a big four-point swing for us,” Orpik said. “I thought everybody was fully committed today. It was a good effort.”