On Saturday night, the Capitals made it look easy for the first two periods in Sunrise, Florida. Their league-leading power-play unit continued to be nearly unstoppable against the Panthers. The home team made a spirited rally in the final 20 minutes, but it was not enough to prevent the Caps from flying home with a 4-3 win.
Dating back to last season Washington has taken seven straight decisions from Florida. One month after blasting their division rivals in D.C., 7-1, it looked like the Caps were primed to repeat the feat.
The gloves were off early, literally. Jason Chimera scrapped with Tyson Strachan at the 2:25 mark of the first period. That altercation was the remnant of an earlier incident from this season, where Strachan was ejected for nailing Chimera in open-ice with a late and high hit at Verizon Center.
Speaking of dangerous hits, Florida defender Erik Gudbranson was kicked out of the game Saturday late in the first period after he drilled Caps newcomer Martin Erat into the boards. Erat did not return to the contest and could be seen limping with a lower-body injury while leaving the arena.
The Caps entered the game tonight 5-for-8 on the man-advantage over three meetings with the Panthers.
Alex Ovechkin would improve on those gaudy numbers at the 15:45 mark. He took a perfect cross-crease pass from Mike Ribeiro and slammed home his league-leading 13th PPG of the season and his 21st tally overall.
Washington would start the second period a man-up and they didn’t wait long to make it 2-zip. Mike Green laced a point drive off the post, and before Florida goalie Jacob Markstrom could recover, Ribeiro tapped in his 12th goal of the year.
A little less than two minutes later, Ovechkin was at it again. He lost the puck while moving into the offensive zone, but before Florida defender Filip Kuba could control it, Alex used a forceful “lift check” to get the puck back on his stick. In the next split second, he snapped a perfect shot over the glove of Markstrom for a three-goal lead.
Late in the second period the advantage would grow to four and the power-play would provide the jolt. Ovechkin capped the 12th hat trick of his career with an almost carbon-copy of his first goal from the evening, this time taking the cross-crease pass from Marcus Johansson.
The Caps were cruising going into the third period, but the Panthers did not pack it in. Tomas Kopecky ripped a shot over the catching-glove side of Braden Holtby to spoil the shutout bid of the Caps netminder at 6:45 of the third.
Less than two minutes later Washington fans started to really squirm when Peter Mueller found a way to chip one through traffic and into the cage.
Holtby finished the night with 27 stops, but he did not prevent Kopecky from hitting the net with only 33 seconds to play in the game. The Panthers scored with six attackers on the ice and kept their goalie on the bench for the ensuing faceoff.
Fortunately, the Caps were able to secure the lead for those final seconds. They needed the win to keep pace in the Southeast Division race with Winnipeg, a victor earlier in the day over Philadelphia. Both squads sit atop the division standings with 40 points apiece.
The Caps tangle with Tampa Bay on Sunday night at Verizon Center. The start time is 7 p.m. for a game you can check-out on Comcast SportsNet Plus.