WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals saw an early two-goal lead slip away Thursday and then gave the Chicago Blackhawks a golden opportunity midway through the second period to seize control of the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
After already allowing a power-play goal to forward Patrick Sharp in the first period, the Capitals found themselves two men short for 1:31 in the second when forward Tom Wilson and defenseman John Carlson took penalties 29 seconds apart in a tie game.
But Washington's penalty kill unit held the Blackhawks without a shot on goal over the 91 seconds and went on to win 3-2 on Troy Brouwer's goal with 12.9 seconds left in regulation at Nationals Park.
"To me, that was the tipping point of the game," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said of the 5-on-3. "We don't kill that off, the Chicago Blackhawks are leaving here with the two points and we probably have a pretty disappointed locker room. The first penalty kill we had, we killed off about three seconds, they scored. And that was huge.
"A lot of times, your stars in these big games, they step up. Those were our guys, our -- the guys that are sort glue guys sometimes. The guys that don't get a lot of credit. All of those guys were huge on the kill. Guys like Jay Beagle, Brooks Laich, and [Brooks] Orpik, what can you say about him today? And Carlson and [Matt] Niskanen, all those guys. It was a really big kill. If we don't kill that off, I'm pretty sure you're asking me a different question today."
Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby should have been a lot busier than he was during Chicago's two-man advantage, but only saw forward Marian Hossa's shot go wide a minute after Carlson was penalized. Sharp had a chance moments later, but his shot was blocked by forward Nicklas Backstrom.
"The 5-on-3 all year has been phenomenal for us," said Holtby, who finished with 33 saves. "I think when you see a moment like that, a 5-on-3 at that time of the game, the guys that do kill in those situations really take a huge pride in knowing that that can turn a game and a month around.
"I think I only stopped one or two shots in that and that shows how committed we were to playing with the commitment we needed, in order to kill that off and get some huge blocks and huge clears and that's like scoring a goal for us right there."
The capacity crowd cringed in unison when Carlson was sent off for high sticking Andrew Shaw at 9:47 of the second period. They were fully aware of the firepower the Blackhawks possessed and certainly felt the game was slipping away from the home team.
The Capitals knew what another goal against could have meant, too.
"That's a big, big moment in the game, especially an extended 5-on-3, over a minute," Niskanen said. "If they get one early there and they're still on the power play, our bench could get pretty deflated. Instead, we kill it off. Their bench was deflated maybe. The game was tied at that point, halfway through the hockey game. That kind of turned the momentum a little bit in the second period. They were kind of taking it to us the first half of the second period. They had a lot of zone time and chances. That kind of turned things a little bit. It evened it out."
Washington took another penalty late in the game when Niskanen was whistled for boarding Shaw at 16:49 of the third. But Brent Seabrook was the lone player to get a shot through to Holtby and Chicago captain Jonathan Toews took a hooking penalty two seconds before Niskanen's penalty expired, leading to Brouwer's power-play goal.
Chicago finished 1-for-6 with the man advantage.
"That was the difference in winning the hockey game," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said.
"Our PK won us the game. They gave us a chance to win. The penalty at the end was just hard work. And then the power play, we just needed to capitalize. We talked about our power play and how we needed to pick it up. They pulled through tonight."