Early in the annual Super Bowl Sunday matinee at Verizon Center, Capitals star winger Alex Ovechkin’s eyes bugged as he saw a wide open net and an easy goal waiting for him.
Instead, he whiffed in comical fashion. It was a rare misstep from a player who is running away with the NHL’s goal-scoring race. But Ovechkin would more than make up for it in overtime when, from almost the exact same spot on the ice, he whistled the game winner past Detroit Red Wings’ goalie Jimmy Howard for a wild 6-5 victory.
That salvaged a game the Caps, struggling to keep up with their Eastern Conference rivals in the playoff chase, absolutely had to have. They led by scores of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 yet couldn’t hold off the proud Red Wings, who aren’t the elite team they’ve been in the past, but remain dangerous.
“It was huge goal in overtime there for us,” forward Jason Chimera said. “If we come out of that game without two points I think we’re pretty dejected and guys are questioning again.”
Ovechkin’s goal, his 39th of the season, came at the 2:37 mark of overtime from the left circle on a pass from teammate John Carlson. Ovechkin has 15 overtime game-winning goals in his career now, tied for third all time. Only New Jersey Devils veterans Jaromir Jagr (18) and Patrik Elias (16) have more. Those men are a decade older than Ovechkin, who is still just 28.
He could laugh about it later, but Ovechkin was left staring at the rafters when he whiffed on a shot completely with Howard hopelessly out of position. Washington was on a power play at the time and there were only two seconds left in the first period. It would have made the score 4-1 and left Detroit deflated. Instead, it was still a game.
“Maybe he needs a goalie in there,” Caps coach Adam Oates cracked.
Washington improved to 4-2 over the last six years when playing in the nationally televised Super Bowl Sunday afternoon game. Ovechkin has seven goals, including a pair of hat tricks, and all of those games have been played at Verizon Center.
“It’s a good two points,” Ovechkin said. “Next game we’re going to play pretty better. Everything right now have to go fine for us.”
That’s because Washington (25-22-9, 59 points) is in 11th place with three more home games left before the Olympic break. When play resumes on Feb. 27, there will be just 23 games remaining in the season. And yet, the Caps are also just four points out of second place in the Metropolitan Division. There is time yet to recover from a rough January.
For the second game in a row, Washington had a dominating start with two goals in less than eight minutes. Jason Chimera scored at even strength and Joel Ward added another on the power play. Ward later scored his 17th goal of the season, tying his career high set with Nashville in 2008-09.
The two third-liners had a similar strong start in Friday’s 4-3 shootout loss at Detroit when playing with forward Brooks Laich, who missed Sunday’s game with a groin injury. Eric Fehr was in his place at center on Sunday.
But a hat trick by Detroit’s Gustav Nyquist kept the back-and-forth affair going. He tied the game at 4-4 just 42 seconds into the third period. After Troy Brouwer gave Washington the lead back by roofing a puck off a turnover, it took just 1:57 for Justin Abdelkader to tie it again at 5 with 13:35 left to play.
Howard finished a rough night with just 22 saves on 28 shots. Michal Neuvirth was steadier in goal for the Caps, but even he managed just 25 saves on 30 shots. It was not an afternoon for blueliners to shine in their own end. But all that mattered to a team that had won just twice in regulation in its last 11 games – a 2-6-3 record – was leaving the ice with a victory.
“It was a lot of back-and-forth, for sure,” Ward said. “You have to just believe in the process and understand that it’s going to a positive. Keep encouraging each other. It’s a long game and it may take the full 60 minutes or even overtime or a shootout.”