WASHINGTON – Suddenly, Alex the Great returned.
Alex Ovechkin collected the puck off the boards on a breakaway, zoomed up the left wing, then cut toward the net, his skates lifting off the surface as he powered in a shot. After tumbling on to his back and sliding in celebration, he rose to greet teammates for hugs, his red jersey smeared with white ice shavings.
Mired in a scoring slump that prompted his coach to try shuffling lines, Ovechkin scored Washington’s final goal with his customary flair. Mike Green and Eric Fehr also contributed two points apiece, and the Capitals edged the Florida Panthers 3-2 on Saturday night.
When a reporter made a reference to the “first Ovechkin-like goal he really scored,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau interrupted and finished the thought, saying, “In a long time, yeah.”
“So hopefully it’s a sign of things to come,” Boudreau added.
Ovechkin has led the NHL in goals twice in his first five seasons, and he also has been the league MVP twice. But he entered Saturday with only two goals in 12 games, and four in his past 23. He’s never scored fewer than 46 goals in a season, but he was on pace for only 28 at the midway point this season.
“My numbers are not that good or where they’re supposed to be,” he said. “But it’s the middle of the season, and there are 40 games left. We’ll see what’s going to happen at the end of the year.”
The Capitals as a whole have not been up to their usual go-go style, with only 22 goals in nine games before Saturday—an average slightly above 1½ per game.
Seeking a spark, Boudreau tinkered with his flashy forwards, switching Ovechkin from left wing—on a line with centre Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble—to right wing—alongside rookie centre Marcus Johansson and Brooks Laich. Alexander Semin shifted from his usual spot at right wing on Laich’s line to left wing with Backstrom and Knuble.
Backstrom (16 games) and Semin (14) are on lengthy goal droughts.
“Eventually, you’ve got to believe that they’re going to score,” Boudreau said about those two. “They’re too good.”
The same must be said of Ovechkin, who looked out of sorts early Saturday. Indeed, Boudreau’s tweaks didn’t produce much: Washington was credited with five shots in the first period. By the second, the coach went back to the usual top line of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble. Semin swapped places with Ovechkin, but then left the game after the second period with a lower body injury.
On the struggles of the altered lines, Boudreau said: “I thought I’d at least get them back to where they’re comfortable and see how that goes.”
After Ovechkin and Fehr assisted on Green’s power-play goal to snap a 1-1 tie with 6:52 left, Knuble and Backstrom set up Ovechkin’s 15th goal.
Florida’s Evgeny Dadonov scored off a rebound with 1:37 remaining to make it a one-goal game, but the Panthers couldn’t convert on a power play over the final 65 seconds.
The Capitals have killed 27 consecutive short-handed situations, helping them limit opponents to a combined 16 goals over the past 10 games.
“We’re playing a lot stronger defensively, and everybody is starting to buy in,” said Fehr, who has eight goals all season but three in three games. “If we keep teams to one or two goals a game, we’re going to win a lot.”
Washington is 6-0-2 in its last eight games, while last-place Florida has lost three in a row.
“That’s as good as we can play under these circumstances. Our effort was there, our execution was there,” said Panthers coach Pete DeBoer, whose team led 1-0 on Mike Santorelli’s goal 3:49 in. “Right now, we’re a team that if we make a mistake or two, we lose. Our margin of error is pretty small.”
NOTES: Asked what he told his players after the first period, Boudreau replied with a smile: “I didn’t curse.” It was a reference to his swearing caught on camera by the behind-the-scenes HBO series leading up to the Winter Classic. Boudreau also said it’s a relief to not be followed around by cameras anymore, even if HBO’s “demeanour … and their professionalism” deserve praise. “We all feel naked, but it’s a good naked,” Boudreau said about the lack of extra people around. “You’re not under the microscope anywhere near as much.” … Washington’s Semyon Varlamov made 25 saves and has allowed six goals in five games. … Florida G Scott Clemmensen stopped 24 shots in his 12th start of the season, giving Tomas Vokoun a night off. … The teams play each other again at Florida on Tuesday.