Playing the first meaningful game on Verizon Center ice after the team's stunning first-round elimination in last year's playoffs, the Washington Capitals returned Saturday night for the team's home opener, turning in a 7-2 win over the New Jersey Devils.
Washington, coming off a 4-2 loss Friday night in Atlanta, broke open a 2-2 game with three goals in a five-minute span late in the second period, two of them coming from Alexander Ovechkin. The Capitals' seven goals were the most the franchise has scored in a home opener since 1983, and chased future Hall of Fame netminder Martin Brodeur from the net in the process, to the delight of the red-clad sellout crowd of 18,398.
Capitals rookie John Carlson — who grew up in New Jersey and rooted for the Devils as a youngster — also scored a goal and had two assists, giving the defenseman his first multipoint game in his brief NHL career.
But the lopsided score also set up an ugly finish to the contest, as the frustrated Devils engaged the Caps in four separate fights in a 10-second span late in the third period. While the first bout saw the unusual pairing of Ilya Kovalchuk — who signed a 15-year, $100 million contract in the offseason — and Washington's star defenseman, Mike Green, it was the fourth fight sparked when New Jersey's Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond chased down Capitals rookie Marcus Johansson and created a melee that was the talk of the Washington dressing room afterward.
"You know, we had the fewest [fighting] majors in the league last year," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We weren't sending guys out to fight or anything, and that's why I sent Marcus out. Purposely. ... I was just mad. The guy went out there, and he was going to grab the first guy he saw. I thought it was great the way our team stood and protected each other, but I mean, that was just dumb."
"He asked me if I wanted [to fight] at the faceoff," Johansson said. "I said no, and he chased me down the ice."
For his actions, Letourneau-Leblond is likely going to receive an automatic one-game suspension by the NHL for instigating a fight in the final five minutes of regulation, and new Devils coach John McLean could face a $10,000 fine.
For the Capitals, however, after Friday's loss against the Thrashers, which Ovechkin called "embarrassing," it was a display of the offensive prowess that put Washington atop the NHL in goals last season.
After falling behind just 1:49 into the contest following an ill-advised pass by Johansson that was intercepted by Patrik Elias and resulted in a Jason Arnott goal, Carlson answered quickly by blasting a shot past Brodeur just :35 later to tie the score.
"It was pretty cool," Carlson said. "I watched [Brodeur] a lot growing up, and it's definitely one of the [goals] I'll remember."
New Jersey retook the lead with 6:16 to play in the period, as Henrik Tallinder rifled a short-handed goal past Washington's Michal Neuvirth, and the Devils held the one-goal edge into the intermission.
However, after the sluggish opening period, the Capitals wrestled control of the contest away in the second period, scoring four goals on just eight shots and leading to Brodeur's benching.
Tomas Fleischmann tied the game 1:59 into the second, one-timing a blast past Brodeur to knot the score at 2. The Capitals turned up the pressure on New Jersey, and eventually, thanks to their superstar captain, they cashed in.
Ovechkin scored his first goal of the new season — and gave the Caps their first lead of the night — with a shot from the circle that was redirected past Brodeur with 5:29 to play in the frame.
Jason Chimera was issued a holding minor shortly after the go-ahead goal. However, Washington's penalty-killers held, and just six seconds after being let out of the box, Chimera rifled a shot past Brodeur with just 1:35 left in the period for a 4-2 edge.
Less than a minute later, Ovechkin was hauled down on a breakaway and was awarded a penalty shot. Although the star came into the game just 1-for-6 in penalty shots, he went wide and beat Brodeur for a 5-2 lead with :47.7 left in the frame.
"I've had a couple of penalty shots against [Brodeur], and you never know what he is going to do, so I just tried to make some simple move, and [the] puck goes in," Washington's captain said. "I was pretty happy."
After allowing five goals on just 20 shots, Brodeur was given a spot on the bench to start the third. However, Washington's offense wasn't done lighting the lamp against backup Johan Hedberg.
While Washington was shorthanded thanks to a too-many-men penalty, Hedberg made an ill-advised clearing attempt in front of the New Jersey net, which was corraled by a forechecking Brooks Laich and deposited in the gaping cage with 3:07 gone in the third.
Eric Fehr then capped the scoring with Washington's first power-play strike in six chances on the season with a shot under the crossbar with 9:33 to play.
However, after that, the game turned ugly.
Kovalchuk and Green got in an unusual scrap with 4:17 to play, followed up by a fight between new Cap Matt Hendricks and Rod Pelley just four seconds later. Matt Bradley and David Clarkson dropped the gloves just after the ensuing face-off, and then the melee started when Letourneau-Leblond chased down Johansson and grabbed his visor, fueling a scrum in front of the Washington bench.
"They're frustrated because they're a proud team," Boudreau said. "I don't know if they've been beaten like that for a while."
Overall, Washington's effort left a team that was fuming just 24 hours earlier in a much better frame of mind.
"I thought when Alex [Ovechkin] scored, it was like the air came out of a balloon, you could see they were OK," Boudreau said. "They finally got a lead in the second period. It was tough on them yesterday. The coaching staff was not pleased with the way we played. When Jason [Chimera] scored, it just seemed like everything opened up, so it was a good feeling for them."
"Everybody played [poorly] last night, and tonight we moved our legs and finished our checks; [we] played better in the neutral zone, defensive zone," Ovechkin said. "It was a pretty big step for us tonight."
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