WASHINGTON – The Washington Capitals no longer make a big fuss about the Southeast Division championship banner.
Instead of raising it, it now gets lowered into its place in the rafters as part of the pre-game video presentation before the puck is dropped for the home opener.
Such was the case Saturday night, when the Capitals got the ceremony out of the way and then started work toward a prospective fifth consecutive division title by doing what they usually do—figure out a way to win the first one in front of their fans.
The Capitals claimed their 10th straight home opener, capping a furious finish when Mike Green scored a power-play goal 2:24 into overtime for a 4-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.
“It’s always in close games, you’re going, ‘Oh, here we go again,'” Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I feel good that we’re going to be confident and win it, but it’s nail-biting time. Only 81 more.”
The game had a sleepy start and hard-to-keep-up ending.
The Hurricanes appeared doomed when they committed back-to-back penalties late in regulation with the score tied at 2-2, giving the Capitals a 5-on-3 advantage that was converted into a goal by Brooks Laich with 3:45 remaining.
Carolina didn’t give up, though. Jussi Jokinen steadied Jeff Skinner’s pass with his right skate and scored from close range with 1:19 to play to send the game to overtime.
But it wasn’t that simple. Alexander Semin elbowed Bryan Allen at the third-period horn for a boarding penalty, putting the Capitals into a hole for overtime.
Not only did the Hurricanes fail to capitalize, but Jokinen was whistled for holding late in the power play to turn the advantage back to Washington, leading to Green’s drive from the top of the right circle that trickled between goaltender Brian Boucher’s legs
With such crazy back-and-forth swings of momentum, it was little wonder that the Hurricanes were satisfied with their effort against the team favoured by many to win the Eastern Conference.
“We played an absolute gritty, fantastic game,” Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. “I thought we were the better team for the first half. … You’re here to win every game, but we played a man’s game tonight. We played a hard game. Everybody got off the bench, involved, our best players were our best players, and I’m really proud of that effort tonight.”
Semin and Jason Chimera scored second-period goals for the Capitals, who haven’t lost their first home regular season game since Oct. 6, 2000, against the Los Angeles Kings.
Semin’s goal was such a clear breakaway that he did a little hitch move to set himself for his approach on Boucher, who had no chance as the Russian forward went to the backhand to put the puck in.
Michal Neuvirth had 28 saves as Washington’s surprise starter over veteran free agent signing Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun is expected to be the No. 1 goalie this season, but Neuvirth entered training camp determined to fight for the job and had the better pre-season. Vokoun will start Monday against Tampa Bay.
Eric Staal had a pair of power-play goals, and Boucher made 32 saves for the Hurricanes, who had Cam Ward in goal for Friday night’s season-opening 5-1 loss to Tampa Bay.
Two-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin played despite spending most of the week in Moscow following the death of an uncle.
He returned to Washington on Friday, but he was a contributor despite the jet lag. He had two shots on goal, had four other shots blocked and drew the tripping penalty on Brandon Sutter that gave the Capitals their late 5-on-4 advantage.
Ovechkin and his teammates can now settle in and aim for their next banner—perhaps finally the one that reads “Stanley Cup champions.”
“It was the first game,” Boudreau said. “The crowd’s into it. A lot of new guys. Nerves were there. It’s like being on the first day of a job and going into the office. You’re nervous, whether you’re a 20-year vet doing the job or just brand new.”
By the way, despite the lack of a big ceremony for the division banner, Boudreau pointed out that it’s better than the alternative.
“It’s great,” he said. “I hope we can raise that banner the next 10 years in a row.”
Notes: The talent-staked Capitals did not have a rookie on the opening night roster for the first time since 2008-09. … Washington posted its 107th consecutive sellout.