DETROIT — This was more like it.
This was the start the Washington Capitals want so badly every night, especially with the season winding down and every game feeling like the biggest one yet. Three goals in 15 minutes, a stunned Joe Louis Arena crowd and a crucial 5-3 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night was the result.
Considering that the third period was almost the scene of a typical Red Wings comeback in this building, the hot start was essentially to propelling the Caps to 80 points and providing some cushion ahead of the Buffalo Sabres.
“We needed it,” coach Dale Hunter said. “When you get down in this league, it’s tough. The first was important. The guys came out; the leaders took care of it and made sure they were ready.”
They weren’t ready Sunday night at the Chicago Blackhawks, when they endured probably the worst first period of the year and were down two goals before even registering a shot.
“We just didn’t want the start that we had last game, coming out timidly and playing with too much respect,” right wing Mike Knuble said.
So the Caps did the opposite, jumping on the Red Wings with three goals in a span of 7:03, including two by captain Alex Ovechkin. It was a textbook way to begin a game on the road, which begged the question of why Washington can’t play like that every night.
“It’s a good question,” said forward Keith Aucoin, who scored the game-winner. “I think we need to start doing that the last nine games that we have left.”
Inconsistent starts have plagued the Caps this season and been a topic of plenty of conversation inside and outside the team.
“All the time we wonder,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We don’t understand why and I wish I had the answer because it would be great. It’d be awesome to always have a little bit of a lead.”
Playing with the lead, perhaps the Caps sat back a little too much in Detroit and let the Red Wings make things interesting. They cut the Caps’ lead to 4-3 late in the third and had a golden opportunity to tie the score as goaltender Braden Holtby was fighting cramps and Knuble committed a silly offensive-zone tripping penalty.
But Hunter pointed to a lot of blocked shots in the final minutes as one of the reasons his team was able to hold on.
“We needed the two points and we held on at the end, the guys played good, defensive hockey at the end to seal the win,” the coach said.
It wasn’t the prettiest win, even after the picturesque start. But with this weekend road trip being as much of a roller-coaster ride as the season as a whole and with hopes of catching the Florida Panthers atop the Southeast Division still present, this wasn’t a luxury.
It was a necessity.
“We need all these games. We don’t want to get in the playoffs by one point, two points,” Alzner said. “We want to get in the playoffs by six, seven, eight points. That’s way better to go in on a bit of a high. We’re working hard for it. We all understand the situation.”