WASHINGTON – The Washington Capitals had just reached .500 for the first time in nearly three months, a noteworthy accomplishment for a team that in November owned the worst record in the NHL.
The man responsible for the turnaround was totally unimpressed.
“We’ve officially reached mediocrity,” coach Bruce Boudreau declared Saturday night after Washington’s 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers.
Rookie Nicklas Backstrom had a career-high four assists, Viktor Kozlov scored twice goals and the surging Capitals scored three power-play goals to earn their third straight win. Alex Ovechkin had a goal and an assist for Washington, which climbed past Florida into third place in the Southeast Division.
“It’s just the beginning for us. We deserve to be in this spot,” Ovechkin said. “We had a terrible start of the season; we lose every game.”
Not exactly, but the Capitals were 6-14-1 when Boudreau replaced fired coach Glen Hanlon. Washington is now 21-21-4 – the first time it’s been at .500 since Oct. 24 (4-4).
“We always have little goals, and that was a goal,” Boudreau said. “Like anything else, the easiest part is to get there. The hardest part is to get over it and stay above it. If we want to have a chance to make the playoffs, we have to get better than that.”
But being at the break-even point is a start.
“That was our goal when Bruce came in, and we’ve done that,” defenceman Tom Poti said. “We’ve got to keep climbing. We can’t be satisfied where we’re at.”
Washington took a 3-0 lead in the opening 12 minutes, then let the Panthers draw even before Alexander Semin put the Capitals ahead for good with a power-play goal at 12:17 of the second period. Ovechkin added his 36th goal with 15:20 left, and Washington goaltender Brent Johnson made the lead stand up.
Shawn Matthias, a 19-year-old centre playing in his second NHL game, scored his first two goals for Florida and Olli Jokinen had a goal and an assist. Matthias, who helped Team Canada win a gold medal earlier this month at the World Junior Championships, was called up from the Belleville (OHL) on Friday.
“It’s nice to get that out of the way, the first one, and it’s nice to get two,” Matthias said. “I wish the team won. It would have made it even sweeter.”
The Capitals took control early by scoring on three straight shots against Tomas Vokoun.
Kozlov started the run with a power-play goal at 6:49 of the first period, deflecting Mike Green’s shot from the right point. Sixty-six seconds later, John Erskine fired a 65-foot slap shot from deep on the left side past the screened Vokoun.
Kozlov made it 3-0 at 11:16, lining a wrist shot into the net an instant after Backstrom won a faceoff in the right circle.
“In the first period I wasn’t happy. I thought they beat us to the puck,” Florida coach Jacques Martin said. “They were more physical and won the battle over the loose pucks.”
Matthias scored on a tip-in during the opening minute of the second period, then added a power-play goal at 4:53 to get the Panthers within one.
“He’s a good young player. I think he’s ready to play in this league,” Jokinen said of Matthias. “We need our best players to play every night, and he’s one of them right now.”
After Washington was called for too many men on the ice, Jokinen scored to knot the score at 3.
Semin put the Capitals back in front by putting in the rebound of a shot by Ovechkin. In the third period, Ovechkin drove a slap shot past Vokoun after Backstrom won a faceoff and got the puck to Green.
Notes: The Capitals went 4-1 during their season-long homestand. … Eleven of Jokinen’s 23 goals have come with Florida on the power play. … Semin has a goal in four straight games. … The previous seven games between the teams were decided by one goal.