Welcome back to the Morning After, your source for Washington Capitals game analysis in this shortened season.
GAME 26: CAPS 3, HURRICANES 2 (11-14-1, 23 points, 3rd in Southeast, 12th in East, seven points back of playoff spot)
RALEIGH, N.C. | Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Alex Ovechkin scores. In all alone, the captain made Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Dan Ellis miss and hit the post instead of the inside of the net.
“I almost fell. My skate, I step on something before that,” Ovechkin said. “It’s always can happen with you, like you step on someone’s stick and it went post and it comes back.”
Center Mike Ribeiro was there to tap the puck in (barely).
“Thanks God it goes in, Ribs find the rebound,” Ovechkin said. “It’s pretty big goal for us.”
But it wasn’t Ovechkin’s goal. So after he spoke to reporters following the victory and while Ribeiro was addressing his game-winner, Ovechkin was pulled into the hallway outside the locker room by coach Adam Oates.
The conversation itself was out of earshot, but it appeared to include some teaching. Oates also acknowledged he was ribbing Ovechkin a little bit.
“We talk,” Oates said. “I’m trying to establish that rapport with him so he trusts me in all the little situations in the game and all the stuff we’ve talked about, all the touches and every little play and I was making fun of him that he whiffed it.”
Ovechkin was “disappointed” he didn’t score but ultimately said it didn’t matter as long as someone did.
Ribeiro had to be a little surprised to need a put-back attempt.
“He faked the shot and then he had the open net and it kind of slipped away from him,” Ribeiro said. “I’ll take those, I’ll take the garbage behind there. I wasn’t sure. I missed my shot and it happened so quick that I got there and the ref showed right away that it was in but I still was not sure that it was in or not.”
It required a review but stood as the game-winning goal. And Ovechkin got what’s likely to be the ugliest primary assist of his career.
That primary assist was NHL point No. 701 for Ovechkin. He joined the 700 club with a power-play goal earlier in the third period that tied the score at 2.
Center Nicklas Backstrom’s shot went off Ellis’ stick, and the goalie poked the puck to right wing Troy Brouwer in front. Instead of throwing it back on net, Brouwer had the awareness to see Ovechkin wide open with plenty of net to shoot at.
Ovechkin didn’t miss this one. “Great play by him,” Ovechkin said of Brouwer’s pass.
It was a major opportunity the Caps didn’t waste. Carolina captain Eric Staal took a high-sticking penalty at the very end of the second period, so the power play began at the start of the third.
“It was big power play for us,” Ovechkin said. “Right before that we just said it’d have to be the biggest 20 minutes and biggest two minutes in our season. We handle it and we tie the game.”
Ovechkin reached the milestone at 27 years, 5 months and 25 days.
“For me it doesn’t matter. Right now most important thing is get back on track and just stay fight for the playoff spot,” he said.
Right wing Joey Crabb isn’t a sniper, but he looked like it on his goal Thursday night. He isn’t normally a hot commodity, but Crabb made an NHL Network appearance after the victory and then fielded more questions about the game and his second goal of the season.
Crabb’s goal, a nice shot from between the circles, was made possible by Aaron Volpatti’s pass from the boards.
“Going to the net hard and getting a good pass pays off,” Crabb said. “I was happy with the pass; Patty made a great pass. It was good and you get a spark.”
It was Volpatti’s first assist of the season. Hey, Joey, did you know he was that skilled?
“Of course I did. He’s my linemate. Our line’s all skilled,” Crabb said. “He’s a good player, and I was just happy to get the pass and get the spark for the team.”
Volpatti and Crabb gave the Caps some tangible evidence of how well they were playing in the second period, down 2-0 but carrying the play.
“Big goal, huge goal for us, right?” Oates said. “Because the game had kind of leveled out and we needed something and Aaron took it down the wall, got by the D, and great little pass, shot, goal. It gave us a lot of life and we got through the second period just down one.”
Michal Neuvirth was making his first start in 35 days, dating to Feb. 7 when he was pulled after giving up two goals on 11 shots at the Pittsburgh Penguins. Neuvirth allowed two goals on the Hurricanes’ first 10 shots Thursday but didn’t get the hook this time.
Instead, he stopped the remaining 28 shots he faced to pick up just his second victory of the season.
“I felt a little bit rusty, a little bit nervous,” Neuvirth said. “Never happened to me, [to go] without a game that long. I battle, I battle hard and I’m real happy we got the win.”
Falling behind 2-0 while in the midst of a losing streak is far from ideal, and Oates said it was a little hard to keep morale up on the bench. Neuvirth bouncing back helped.
“We stayed strong. You make mistakes, Neuvy hadn’t played in a while, probably wants the second one back,” the coach said. “We fought through it, great. And he played solid; he played really solid after that.”
When the Caps trailed the Boston Bruins 3-0 after the first period March 5, several players and Oates had stuff to say at intermission. A comeback followed.
Again Thursday, Washington looked like an entirely different team out of the break. But players didn’t act as if much changed.
“I thought we just have to stay with it. It wasn’t going to be an easy game,” right wing Joel Ward said. “Obviously they won the last game, and we knew that they were going to come out and give us some pressure. We just had to regroup.”
So why were the Caps able to regroup two days after having no real push-back when they fell behind to the same opponent at home?
“I just think a little bit of desperation, more so, I think, tonight,” Ward said. “Just a little disappointed in the way we were down in the first. We obviously came back out in the second and third and won the game.”
The message at the first intermission, Crabb said, was to cut down on turnovers, keep up the wave of momentum and simplify things.
“I think it was just the start was a little bit rusty,” Volpatti said. “I think we did some pretty good things towards the end of the first, we got some hits, good bumps towards the end there and played a little time in their zone. We came in here and just no harm, no foul, we were fine.”