Minnesota goaltender Josh Harding tried his best to carry his tired club to an upset Friday night.
But the shots kept coming, and eventually the Washington Capitals, rested and rolling despite not having Alex Ovechkin, squeezed out just enough offense to secure their fourth straight victory.
Getting goals from a pair of defensemen for the first time this season, the Caps survived a valiant effort by Harding for a 3-1 victory at Verizon Center. Washington moved back atop the Eastern Conference with 28 points - two more than the Caps’ foe Saturday night, the New Jersey Devils.
“[Minnesota] played [Thursday] night, so we knew that if we could hang on for the first 10 minutes that it would start to show,” said defenseman Brian Pothier, who scored the winning goal. “We did a good job hemming them in, especially in the second period. I think it wore them out a little bit, and we were able to capitalize on a mistake.”
While the Caps continue to thrive and Ovechkin’s return is near, Washington lost another key forward Friday. Mike Knuble left in the first period after he fell over Harding and into the Minnesota net with the help of a shove from defenseman Marek Zidlicky. He suffered a broken finger and is expected to miss three to four weeks.
Pothier gave the Caps the lead two minutes into the third period. He took a drop pass from Mathieu Perreault and snapped a shot into the top-right corner for his second of the season. After being benched Nov. 4 at New Jersey, Pothier has five points in four games.
“I think Brian Pothier’s play in the past three or four games has been the best it’s been all year,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “When he plays with confidence, he’s a real good player. He can skate and he can shoot the puck, and he did both tonight.”
Brooks Laich added an empty-net goal in the final minute to end any doubt, but only then could the sellot crowd exhale after Harding stopped 38 of 40 shots. Holding third-period leads has been a bit tricky for the Caps this season, but they kept the Wild from mounting much of a charge on this night.
“It’s really important this time of year to start really making a commitment to holding leads. And 2-1 [early] in the third, we have to shut teams down,” Pothier said. “That’s the sign of a great team. We’ve been good all year, but if we want to take that next step, that’s the time we need to shut teams down.”
Cal Clutterbuck put the Wild on the board first. His shot from the edge of the right circle fluttered a bit and fooled netminder Semyon Varlamov 1:31 into the second period. Clutterbuck has 15 goals in 94 career games; three of them have come in two contests against the Caps.
Mike Green leveled the score a little more than four minutes later with Washington on the power play. Tomas Fleischmann raced down the right wing with the puck and centered a pass for Green between the circles. Green’s stick was interfered with a bit on the play, so his one-timer hugged the ice, but the puck sneaked through the legs of Harding at 5:39.
It was Green’s third goal of the year and first with the extra man. He set a team record for defensemen with 18 power-play markers a season ago.
“It seems like I don’t have a lot of room out there - maybe it is because of last year,” Green said. “It seems like every guy is standing in front of me, but that’s good because other guys are scoring and it leaves somebody else open.”
After a slow start, Washington outshot Minnesota 29-9 in a 27-minute stretch spanning the end of the first period and the entirety of the middle stanza, but the Capitals could not forge ahead.
Pothier finally solved Harding - who entered the game with a .761 save percentage in three appearances - and the Caps headed to New Jersey looking to stay in first place in the conference.
“It will be a fun game,” Boudreau said. “I think every game we’ve played against them in the last two years has been a fun game and a close game.”