WASHINGTON - After exchanging counter-punches with the defending Stanley Cup champions, Alex Ovechkin delivered a decisive knockout combination he hopes will establish the Washington Capitals as a legitimate contender.
Ovechkin broke a third-period tie with another highlight-reel goal and added a power-play tally less than two minutes later in the Capitals' 4-2 victory over Detroit on Saturday that extended the Red Wings' losing streak to a season-high five games.
"It's a huge victory for us," Ovechkin said. "It gives us a lot of confidence. They were missing a couple of players, but it's very important to play an experienced team and this game meant a lot to us."
It proves the Capitals have the mettle to succeed against the NHL's elite. Before Saturday, they were 1-9 with a tie in their last 11 home games against Detroit.
"It's a good measuring stick to see how you match up to the Stanley Cup champs," Washington defenceman Tom Poti said. "A lot of guys had this game circled on the calendar. It's a game we were ... obviously jacked up for."
But until the third-period scoring flurry, the game could have swung either way. With a sellout crowd gasping on every rush up the ice, Ovechkin, held in check for much of the game, took control.
He looked to have overskated a feed from Viktor Kozlov along the left wing, but reached behind himself, sneaked the puck through his own legs and used defenceman Brian Rafalski as a shield before pushing a low shot past Ty Conklin with 7:08 remaining.
"It just happens. It's just a moment. I tell Conklin, 'It's coming, it's coming - and it's coming in the third period."' Ovechkin said, dissecting another sparkling individual effort.
Detroit's Kirk Maltby was penalized for cross-checking with 5:58 left, and, six seconds later, Ovechkin popped in Nicklas Backstrom's rebound from the left post for his team-high 33rd goal, drawing chants of "MVP! MVP!" from the red-clad throng.
"When you think of dominating a game, I don't think Ovie did that tonight. They pay him to score - and that's what he did at the end," Red Wing coach Mike Babcock said.
"I thought we did a good job on their top line for the first two periods, but he's a sniper," Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said. "(Ovechkin) doesn't need much to score goals."
Washington is 31-1-1 when he scores.
"Alex is one of those big-game guys," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "You keep throwing him out there and throwing (him) out there and eventually good things will happen."
Mike Green and Kozlov also tallied for Washington, which halted a two-game losing streak. Ville Leino and Johan Franzen had Detroit's goals.
The Red Wings, who had won three straight against Washington, lost to the Capitals for the first time since Nov. 24, 2003.
"Any time you're not winning on a regular basis, there are things you've got to do better," Babcock said. "All in all, from goaltending to playing better defense to penalty kills to more offence, we've got to do better."
An end-to-end first period characterized by prolonged rushes and near misses culminated in the teams trading goals during a 57-second span.
Leino, making his NHL debut, put the Red Wings ahead 1-0 with a 1:54 left. He took a pass from Pavel Datsyuk down the left wing, spun around and backed toward the goal, then slipped a backhander past Jose Theodore when neither Theodore nor Alexander Semin delivered a check.
Less than a minute later, Kozlov tipped in Milan Jurcina's one-timer from the right point past Conklin.
A similar scenario unfolded late in the second period, with Green and Franzen swapping scores 1:51 apart.
Washington had killed off two penalties before Green scored from between the circles, converting Backstrom's falling-down feed from the left circle at 17:19. But with Semin off for hooking, Franzen scored from the right post for a 2-2 tie, one of only four Detroit shots in the stanza.
Three Capitals penalties in the final 1:38 and the Red Wings' decision to pull Conklin for an extra skater late meant Detroit skated the final 1:07 with a three-man advantage. But Washington's defense collapsed around Theodore, who finished with 25 saves, to preserve the lead.
Notes: Detroit LW Henrik Zetterberg sat out his second straight game with back spasms and has not played since signing a 12-year, $73 million contract Wednesday. The Red Wings also scratched LW Tomas Holmstrom (groin). ... Washington hosts Ottawa on Sunday afternoon, the Capitals' first consecutive home matinees since Dec. 31, 2005-Jan. 1, 2006. ... The Capitals finished better than .500 in each of the first four months of the season for the first time in franchise history. Washington is 31-15-4 record through 50 games is the second-best in club history to a 31-12-7 start in 1984-85. ... The Red Wings' losing streak is their longest since dropping losing six straight Feb. 7-17, 2008.