The Washington Capitals earned the fewest points of any NHL team through 11 games in this lockout-shortened season, sufficiently blurring the line between slow start and bad team. Time is short, which is why outsiders’ questions about the Capitals’ new coach and new system devolved so quickly into pessimism about their potential.
There is only one way to stop such a torrent, and the Capitals achieved that Saturday night. Following a players-only meeting Friday, they summoned their best game of the season, a 5-0 win over the Florida Panthers at Verizon Center.
Determined forechecking, more disciplined play and Braden Holtby’s quality goaltending amounted to 60 blissful minutes of hockey and maybe, just maybe, a springboard out of the NHL’s cellar.
“That kind of game we need,” said captain Alex Ovechkin, who scored his first even-strength goal of the season. “Everybody was so focused today. Like, we have a meeting for the guys, and we just said, like, ‘Be focused, bring energy and do what you have to do best.’ It works.”
The Capitals ended a three-game losing streak and won for just the second time in seven games. The two points they earned increased their season total to seven, still the fewest in the league. But as they packed for a three-game road trip that begins in Florida on Tuesday, their dominance Saturday amplified optimism that they can leave behind their woeful start and accomplish their goals.
First-year coach Adam Oates viewed the win as the best example of his vision for the team. The Capitals played with high energy, won pucks along the boards and didn’t concede many quality scoring chances. They scored more than three goals for the first time this season.
“We were just talking – was it the five goals or the shutout more important?” Oates said. “Obviously a lot of positives.”
Holtby stopped 27 shots for his fourth-career shutout. The most important was a glove save against winger Kris Versteeg on an odd-man rush midway through the first period. That was the greatest test he faced, and keeping the game scoreless there allowed the Capitals to take control.
He benefited from Washington’s discipline. Florida had only two power plays, and only one while the final outcome was in doubt. It was only the fourth time this season the Capitals did not surrender a power play goal.
“That was huge because everyone knows Florida, their power play is what keeps them going,” Holtby said. “Even when we gave them a couple, our PK really focused in the last couple days to make sure we were better.”
The offensive explosion triggered the type of red-rockin’ party the Verizon Center became accustomed to over the last five seasons.
Troy Brouwer scored Washington’s first two goals. Joel Ward scored on a wrister from the slot to make it 3-0 by the second intermission. Mathieu Perreault followed Ovechkin’s goal by scoring on a rebound midway through the third period.
“We’ve let teams linger around, and as a result we’ve gotten no points out of those games,” Brouwer said. “So tonight it was very important to us to try and continue to get momentum in our direction, continue to get shifts in their zone, get chances and ultimately score a couple more goals and put some distance between us and them.”
Brouwer opened the scoring at 17:45 of the first. He and forward Wojtek Wolski pressured Florida forward Jerred Smithson into a turnover behind the Panthers’ goal. The puck slid out to Capitals defenseman John Carlson, who one-timed a shot from the top of the right circle. Brouwer re-directed it into the net.
Holtby assisted on Brouwer’s second goal with a pass from his goal line to where Brouwer was camped out at Florida’s blue line. He caught the Panthers’ penalty killers in a long line change. Brouwer skated in alone and rocketed a slapshot into the upper left corner.
“He moves the puck as well as any goalie, and for him to have the vision to see up the ice and be able to make his pass it’s pretty special by him,” Brouwer said.
The Capitals’ line of Eric Fehr, Perreault and Ward – playing together for the first time – accounted for two of the final three goals.
“Fehrsie’s a big body, and it’s always good to play with a big guy on the other side,” Ward said. “And Mattie P has just been waiting to get in, and it’s good for him to contribute well and get it in right away. He’s an offensive skill guy. It’s no secret, again, we’re just trying to get open and make plays. He’s slowly finding us, and we connected today for a couple.”
For one night, then, the Capitals restored order to their season.
“If we use it to our advantage, it can put a lot of confidence in our team,” Holtby said. “But that’s only talk. We have to make sure that we come to work tomorrow and make sure this road trip in Florida, we improve on every game and we’re not satisfied with this one.”