Mike Green was a breakout star last season. This year, he’s turning into whatever the next level is after that.
Green potted a pair of goals in the third period Saturday night to extend his lead among NHL defensemen and propel the Washington Capitals to a 3-1 victory against the Florida Panthers at sold-out Verizon Center.
“It certainly has been Mike’s last two weeks,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Practically everything he is touching is turning to gold, and I hope it doesn’t end. He can play for 30 minutes and never look tired.”
The Caps now possess a 14-point lead on the Panthers, who were the only team in the Eastern Conference that Washington had not beaten this season.
Green has 19 goals in 41 games, one year after leading all NHL defensemen with 18 tallies. He has scored in six straight contests, a franchise record for players at his position.
The 23-year-old’s first goal came 43 seconds into the third period. With the Caps on a power play that carried over from the previous period, Alex Ovechkin faked a shot from the left point before sending a pass to Green. He tucked a wrist shot into the top left corner of the net - a shot so precise Florida goaltender Tomas Vokoun whirled around in disbelief.
“His shot is so accurate - it might be like a baseball player hitting a groove,” Boudreau said. “He’s just hitting everything the pitcher is throwing to him. He’s picking the top corners pretty frequently.”
Added Green: “[It was] a great fake by Alex. He was shooting everything. I thought he was going to shoot, but it was a good pass by him.”
Washington’s penalty-killing problems have been well-documented in recent weeks, but the guys on the PK redeemed themselves in the final period. The Caps had to kill off a five-on-three for 65 seconds and were short-handed for the final 5:56 of the contest because Shaone Morrisonn was assessed a checking-from-behind major penalty (and a game misconduct) for putting Cory Stillman face-first into the glass with 5:01 left.
Not only did the Caps snuff out the Panthers’ power play, Green also was able to put one into the empty net with 1:13 remaining from about 170 feet away after Vokoun went to the bench to give Florida a six-on-four advantage.
“I usually have a chance to get out there for those [empty-net chances], so it was nice to get one of those,” Green said. “We have to give to a lot of credit to our PK - that’s what won us the game.”
For the second straight game, the Caps struck before everyone in the capacity crowd arrived. Eric Fehr took a pass on a rush from Tomas Fleischmann and snapped a shot from inside the right circle into the top right corner at 33 seconds. It was Fehr’s sixth goal of the season and his third in the past four games.
But also for the second consecutive outing, the Caps were unable to maintain that early momentum. Washington had a four-minute power play thanks to a high-sticking call on Florida’s Stephen Weiss, but a blocked shot led to a breakaway and Green committed a tripping infraction to thwart the threat.
During the ensuing four-on-four, the Panthers evened the score. Defenseman Keith Ballard took a pass from ex-Caps forward Richard Zednik and blasted a shot from the top of the offensive zone that may have hit a Caps stick on the way in; it seemed to fool netminder Jose Theodore.
Ballard has five goals this season, and his tally was the 37th by a member of Florida’s defensive corps, tops in the NHL.
That both of the Caps’ goals against Vokoun came in the opening minute of a period might not have been a coincidence. Players on both teams struggled to control the puck throughout the night.
“The ice was disgusting,” Caps defenseman Tom Poti said. “It’s a shame, to be honest with you. The puck was like a bouncy ball out there, jumping around and banging around. It is tough to handle the puck when it’s like that.”