The Florida Panthers - without their starting goaltender and playing for the second time in as many nights with more than 1,000 miles of travel in between - were set up to fail Thursday night.
That said, the Washington Capitals have struggled to bury inferior teams on many occasions this season. Even without suspended star Alex Ovechkin, that wasn’t a problem on this night.
Alexander Semin had a four-point night in his return from injury, and Semyon Varlamov made 26 saves as the Caps crushed the Panthers 6-2 in a game that wasn’t even that close.
“That was our main focus right from the beginning - we knew they didn’t get in and get to sleep until almost 3:30 [a.m.], so it is something we talked about,” Caps captain Chris Clark said. “You want to keep pushing and keep pushing and hopefully break their backs.”
Semin had missed the previous seven games with a wrist injury, but he put the Caps on the board first at 10:34 of the first period. The shot was a clear indication of Semin’s health: He snapped a wrister from the right circle just under the crossbar for his 10th goal of the season.
The wrist was bothering Semin even before he left the lineup; he had only two points - and no goals - in his previous six games.
“Of course it was bad that [Ovechkin] didn’t play tonight, but what can you do?” Semin said through an interpreter. “It was my first game after the injury, and it is always difficult to play in your first game back, but the team played well and helped me get back to my game.”
Tomas Fleischmann helped carry the offense when Ovechkin missed six games because of injury last month, but he hadn’t scored since the two-time MVP returned. Well, Ovechkin was back out of the lineup serving the first of a two-game suspension Thursday - and Fleischmann was back to his scoring ways.
Fleischmann finished a tic-tac-toe passing exhibition with Brendan Morrison and Eric Fehr, and his shot not only made it 2-0 but also chased starting netminder Scott Clemmensen just 11:50 into the first period.
Matt Bradley made it 3-0 with a short-handed goal at 2:45 of the second. His long wrist shot beat Alexander Salak, a 22-year-old making only his second NHL appearance. Salak got the call after goalie Tomas Vokoun suffered a lacerated ear via friendly fire; he was struck by the stick of Panthers defenseman Keith Ballard on Monday night.
Semin connected with Nicklas Backstrom on a perfect no-look, cross-crease pass for a five-on-three tally at 5:13 to push the lead to 4-0.
Varlamov lost his shutout on goals by Stephen Weiss and Bryan Allen in the final 3:22, but he was otherwise stout when needed. The 21-year-old rookie improved to 11-1-2.
“We played a real good game for about 56 minutes,” Morrison said. “It was a couple of lucky bounces, but you don’t want to end the game like that. You want to help your goalie out because he played a good game.”
The Caps were cruising to a relatively uneventful victory before Panthers forward Mike Duco jumped Alexandre Giroux at center ice after Giroux had made two clean checks in the Florida zone. Duco was assessed 27 penalty minutes at 2:14 of the third period, and the Caps received a seven-minute power play. Morrison and Semin each scored with the man advantage.
“Normally I wouldn’t have put [my top players] back out on the power play - I would have rolled [the lines],” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “But when they are going to be stupid and I don’t know if that guy just left the bench and nobody else came off…
“To attack Alex like that - it is almost what the game has come to. … Hockey used to be you hit a guy hard and that’s what it is all about. Now you hit a guy hard, and you think you have to retaliate on it. It is stupid. It was a dumb thing, and it took his team completely out of a chance to win the game.”