In the first game since its power play became the top-ranked unit in the NHL, the Washington Capitals faltered with the man advantage. The team also appeared to lack energy, and its top offensive players were not producing through two periods Sunday.
Coach Bruce Boudreau tinkered with his lines - and it was the supporting cast that responded, helping the Caps to a 6-4 comeback victory on the strength of a dominant final period in front of a sellout matinee crowd at Verizon Center.
“I think they just wanted it more,” Boudreau said of his team in the third. “We were sleepwalking it seemed like for two periods. It happens a lot when you depend on your power play to win games. The power play wasn’t going very well, so it was time for the five-on-five [play] to step up.”
Michael Nylander, Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr and Keith Aucoin had a goal and an assist each, while Brooks Laich had two assists and an empty-net tally to ensure the team’s eighth win in 12 games (8-2-2). The victory also means Washington’s lead for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference is two points over New Jersey with three games left.
Nylander had his second goal in 19 games to level the score at 3-3 early in the final period. Fehr started the play by tying up an Atlanta defenseman in the corner, and then Laich found Nylander for a one-timer from the left circle at 2:43.
A little more than two minutes later, Fehr tried to push the puck toward the front of the net, but it hit a falling defenseman and kicked back to him. He was able to lift the second attempt past Atlanta goaltender Johan Hedberg despite being hauled down by Bryan Little at 5:04 of the period for a 4-3 lead.
Fehr had scored just one goal in his previous 16 games.
“It feels good to finally be able to chip in,” Fehr said. “It was great that we got the win, and it makes that win even better when you know you contributed.”
Aucoin stole the puck from Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk at the top of the circles and sent a pass to Fleischmann, who made a nifty move and then left a drop pass for Alexander Semin to connect on his 31st of the season at 8:20 to give the Caps a two-goal advantage.
It was another strong performance for Aucoin, who also nearly netted a second goal but hit the far post from close range.
“[Hershey general manager] Doug Yingst might not like us, but he’s played very well,” Boudreau said. “We’ll probably have to make a decision here sooner or later [about the playoffs], but he’s done really well.”
Fleischmann gave the Caps an early lead with his first goal in 16 games. Seconds after flubbing a one-timer from Fehr, Fleischmann knocked Nathan Oystrick’s outlet pass down with his glove, then put a quick shot past Hedberg 2:13 into the opening period.
“That was a break for me,” Fleischmann said. “I haven’t had a lot of bounces for me lately, but that was it. I was happy I put it in.”
It was one of the few bright spots in a period filled with missed power-play opportunities, including one that essentially became a five-on-two for about 30 seconds because two Thrashers players broke their sticks.
Aucoin took advantage of a rare opportunity on the power play to pot his second goal with the Caps. Semin sent a pass from the left wall to a cutting Alex Ovechkin, who then hit Aucoin in front of the net with a one-timer at 9:43 of the middle period.
Aucoin’s goal was the team’s lone extra-man marker despite seven opportunities. The Caps are now tied with Detroit for the top power-play proficiency in the league at 25.3 percent.
“We really wanted to turn it around in the third period,” Fehr said. “We wanted to do it at five-on-five. Our power play has carried us all year, and we wanted to score some [even-strength] goals to help us get the win.”