Karl Alzner joked that the goal was reminiscent of the one Edmonton Oilers rookie sensation Connor McDavid scored on Tuesday night in a victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Alex Ovechkin said it was “like back to the ‘70s, you know? Bobby Orr, all those guys.”
Whichever way the Washington Capitals want to paint the dazzling goal by defenseman Matt Niskanen, one that gave them a 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, it’s clear that they needed it.
As the league-leading Capitals fight through one their gravest power-play droughts of the season — their 0-for-17 stretch spanning five games dates to Jan. 19 — they have had to find other ways to be successful.
Andre Burakovsky, their second-line left wing who had just four goals on Jan. 17, has scored six in his last six games. The penalty kill, one of the league’s better units, has held opponents scoreless on 14 of their last 18 opportunities.
A recent call-up, Paul Carey, scored his first NHL goal in a victory over the New Jersey Devils on Saturday. And, with the goals by Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov on Sunday, even defensive players are helping out the cause.
“We’re going to need that at times,” Niskanen said on Sunday afternoon. “I don’t think it’s going to happen every game, but it can’t be the top two lines all the time contributing. [Against the Devils], we got a goal from our fourth line, today, a couple from the D. That’s part of being a team.”
Washington has had one of the top power-play units for several years — it was the most successful group last season, and the second-most successful the season before — and entered Sunday’s game with a league-high 24.5 conversion percentage.
Much of that in previous years has been because of Ovechkin, who has scored at least 47 percent of his goals with the man advantage in each of the last four seasons. This year, though, only 11 of Ovechkin’s 30 goals have been on the power play, and coach Barry Trotz said before Sunday’s game that the stagnation has been more of a product of execution than anything related to the scheme.
The Capitals were unsuccessful in their two chances on Sunday, though their second was significantly better than the first. They did not muster a single shot attempt once Flyers right wing Ryan White was sent to the penalty box for slashing at 7:43 of the first period and turned the puck over twice. On the second try, with White back off the ice for cross-checking at 2:47 of the second period, the Capitals at least had five attempts — including Ovechkin’s look from the doorstep off the opening draw that was stopped four seconds in.
“Power play have to get better, and we know that,” Ovechkin said. “But, if we’re winning five-on-five, it doesn’t matter. We’d rather [be] winning like that than [wondering], ‘Are they going to come on the power play?’”
A pair of early kills, plus one midway through the second period that led to 53 seconds of five-on-three, also aided the Capitals’ comeback quest. Tom Wilson was sent off for interference at 10:13, and Washington was assessed another penalty for having too many men on the ice during an ill-timed change roughly a minute later, forcing the shorthanded scenario.
Niskanen, defensive partner Karl Alzner and fourth-line center Brooks Laich endured the Flyers’ surge, frustrating the Flyers. Ovechkin scored just over four and a half minutes later, redirecting Alzner’s attempt to tie the score, and Orlov added his goal 1:09 later for the 2-1 lead.
“We want to pull our own weight, and so when things aren’t going, you have to win the special teams war in a different way, and PK is the way it needs to be done,” Alzner said.
Niskanen’s goal only further varied the Capitals’ contributions. Having already skated by Claude Giroux in his own end and protected the puck from a relaxed Wayne Simmonds, he figured he’d have an opportunity to pass the puck, but then saw nothing but open ice in front of him.
Jakub Voracek was too far away to disrupt the play, leaving the Flyers’ two defensemen, Michael Del Zotto and Shayne Gostisbehere, as Niskanen’s only remaining obstacles. Del Zotto’s lunging attempt at a poke check proved futile, a quick backhand helped Niskanen pull the puck away from Gostisbehere, and goaltender Steve Mason was stunned by a shortside flip.
Niskanen, who now has three goals on the season and 42 in a career that spans nine-plus years, insisted that much of the play was the result of luck.
If that’s the case, it’s yet another way the Capitals can win games.
“We’ve just got to make sure that we’re able to have success against all types of situations, and we’re very prepared in all those areas,” Trotz said. “That’s something I’m going to look at in the last 31 games — all areas of our game.”