SUNRISE, Fla. — All season long, the Washington Capitals have searched for a recipe for road success. Unable to manufacture energy away from raucous Verizon Center, they spent months falling behind and then losing.
Friday night, they found an unconventional path to success: falling behind but using a big third period to beat the Florida Panthers 2-1 at BankAtlantic Center and move within two points of first place in the Southeast Division.
“I think we play great hockey, especially in the second period we battled through,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “I think everybody play with the fire, I think, because it’s playoff hockey right now for us, and you can’t lose it.”
Despite an arena that featured far from a playoff-level crowd, the intensity was there on the ice — flaring up in post-whistle scrums, with one even occurring after the final buzzer sounded.
This was a game the Caps realized was crucial to keeping their division title hopes afloat, and they played like it — even though they didn’t score the first goal. Instead, ex-Washington forward Tomas Fleischmann took advantage of defensive holes to score in the final minute of the first period. It was the only goal Tomas Vokoun, making his first start in Florida since signing with the Caps this season, allowed on 23 shots.
Even as the Caps spent long periods of time on attack, with the fourth line of Jay Beagle, Jeff Halpern and Joel Ward leading the charge, Panthers goaie Jose Theodore was sharp — making 39 saves — in his first matchup with his former team since leaving as a free agent in 2010.
“The goalie was good tonight,” coach Dale Hunter said. “We just kept getting more pressure and more pressure.”
And even though Mike Knuble looked to have Theodore beat late in the first, referee Eric Furlatt waved it off and gave the veteran right wing a penalty for goaltender interference. Replays showed his goal should have been allowed and no penalty should have been assessed.
But the Caps kept up the attack, putting plenty of rubber on Theodore.
“To not have the lead after the first and still be down after the second, it felt like a playoff game where it was a huge amount of desperation and frustration in the room,” Halpern said. “I don’t care who it is, you’re going to squeeze the stick a little and you’re going to tighten up — not tighten up where you can’t play, but tighten up where you’re frustrated.”
Knuble, frustrated but not frazzled by the disallowed goal, wreaked havoc around the crease as part of Ovechkin’s tying goal in the third.
“It’s just being around the net and the puck is bouncing around and it ends up kind of hitting you there,” said Knuble, who picked up his first point in over a month. “I got a stick on it and their guy kind of slides and you’re just creating a little bit of a cluster in front. And then it bounces around and all of a sudden it’s on Alex’s stick.”
That’s where the Caps want it: both there and on Alexander Semin’s stick. The Russian sniper beat Theodore for the game-winner with just 6:33 left, giving Washington its 10th road win of the season.
The Caps have reason to be happy after a crucial road victory but also plenty of motivation not to get too high, given that they still have games at Tampa Bay, Carolina and Ottawa coming up.
“It’s just one game and we’ve dug ourselves in a little bit of a hole we have to get out of,” Halpern said, “but it helps to win at least one.”