The expected happened for the Capitals on Thursday night.
Star winger Alex Ovechkin scored the game-winning goal in a 4-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets at Verizon Center. It was the 66th time Ovechkin has scored a game winner in his career, tied for eighth among all active NHL players.
But it took the unexpected to even give him the chance. Defensemen Julien Brouillette and Patrick Wey, playing together as the third pairing, contributed the primary and secondary assists on a game-tying goal by fellow rookie Tom Wilson early in the third period.
"They didn't look nervous," said Caps goalie Braden Holtby, the unexpected starter for an ill Michal Neuvirth. He finished with 34 saves on 36 shots.
Brouillette, 27, was making his NHL debut. It took him three pro seasons to jump from the ECHL to the AHL, where he played for five different teams. But he's been a fixture at Washington's top affiliate, Hershey, since the 2011-12 season and finally earned his chance Thursday as the left defenseman next to Wey, a Boston College product.
"A little bit [of nerves], always," said Brouillette, who learned he was being promoted mid-afternoon on Wednesday. "But it's actually funny, once we took that 3-2 lead I was getting a little bit more nervous. But the team stayed on its game. Good win."
Wey, 22, had one NHL game under his belt. He made his pro debut just this season and had appeared in only 22 minor league games with ECHL Reading and Hershey. He made his NHL debut on Dec. 7, but was quickly returned to the minors. Wey was a fourth-round pick by Washington in 2009.
Wilson has been with the Caps all season at age 19. But he had just one goal and six assists during an up-and-down year. Maybe that's expected for a player caught in the middle – too old to return to junior hockey, ineligible to play in the AHL and not quite ready for the NHL.
"It's always nice to see those kind of players when they work hard every night," Ovechkin said. "They do everything for the team. They fight. Yeah, [Wilson] make mistakes, but when I was rookie I make lots of mistakes, probably most guys in the league did. But it's nice when he get a score."
And it set the tone for a period where Washington relentlessly drove the net. It was how Wilson registered his just 3:38 into the third period with his team down 2-1. Ovechkin added the go-ahead go 4:08 later when he crashed the net and lifted a backhanded shot over Winnipeg goalie Ondrej Pavelec (26 saves, 30 shots).
Brouwer finished the scoring at 15:15 with his second goal of the game. It came off a backhander after another fine pass from Marcus Johansson, who had assisted on a first-period goal. Both players drove the net hard to create the chance. Brouwer hadn't scored two goals in a game since April 20 at Montreal.
"We were extremely unhappy with the way we were playing, the way we were giving up chances, our execution," Brouwer said of a second period where the Jets took the lead and outshot the Caps 16-7. "It was just poor all around. So we came out, we started winning battles and as a result we were holding the puck a little bit more, creating some more opportunities."
And so Washington wrestled some momentum back after a frustrating 1-0 loss to the last-place New York Islanders on Tuesday. In the midst of a critical four-game homestand before the NHL takes a break for the Winter Olympics, the Caps are now 2-1 with a final game left Saturday against the New Jersey Devils.
With injured players Mike Green (concussion) and Mikhail Grabovski (foot) still out injured, it buys them time while remaining in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. The Caps (26-23-9, 61 points) are in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division, but just four points out of second place in a crowded race. There are 24 games left. They are three points of of a playoff position.
"We've put ourselves in a position where each game keeps getting bigger and bigger," Holtby said. "How we're going to be successful is if we dumb it down and we just focus on the little things that we need to do to win games."
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