WASHINGTON - Just as Alex Ovechkin is about to return, Mike Knuble breaks a finger and will be sidelined three to four weeks.
Time for a pity party for the Washington Capitals? Of course not. They've won four straight, have sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference and lead their division by nine points.
The Capitals beat the Minnesota Wild 3-1 on Friday night, again displaying the type of balanced attack that has kept the team successful during five games without their two-time reigning league MVP. Ovechkin is due back any day from his upper-body injury - perhaps as early as Saturday night at New Jersey - and it'll be a timely return given what happened to Knuble in the first period against the Wild.
With the Capitals on a power play, defenceman Marek Zidlicky sent Knuble hurdling over goalie Josh Harding and into Minnesota's net. Knuble skated straight to the locker room and did not return. The team announced he will have surgery but did not say which finger was broken.
Asked if Knuble's injury will speed up Ovechkin's return, coach Bruce Boudreau shrugged and said: "I don't know yet. I've got to talk to the powers-that-be."
Knuble has five goals and 10 assists this season. He was one of Washington's major free-agent acquisitions, signing a two-year deal, US$5.6-million deal in July.
But the Capitals are playing well no matter who is missing. On Friday, Mike Green scored a power-play goal in the second period, Brian Pothier got the go-ahead score early in the third, and Brooks Laich added an empty-netter in the final minute. Semyon Varlamov made 29 saves as the Capitals moved two points ahead of New Jersey atop the East, and Boudreau wasn't shy about letting his players know it.
"If they're like me, I want to be No. 1 in everything," Boudreau said. "I've let them know where they stand. No matter what you're playing, you like to be on top, and right now we are. During the course of the season it goes peaks and valleys and other teams take it over, and you never know how it's going to end up, but it's always fun to be there at one point in the season."
Still, the NHL's highest scoring team was nearly thwarted by a backup goalie who more than doubled his save total for the entire season. Harding entered the game 0-2 and had saved only 35 of the 46 shots he had faced. Against the Capitals, he stopped 38 of 40.
"Josh, I thought was tremendous," Minnesota coach Todd Richards said. "And that's what you want from your goalie. It's nice to see him off of the previous two games that he played come in and play a game like this."
Cal Clutterbuck scored for the Wild, 2-9-1 on the road this season. Minnesota showed the effects of playing on back-to-back nights, having lost in a shootout at Tampa Bay on Thursday.
"It's not easy to get into a city at almost 4 o'clock in the morning and have to get up and play the next day," Clutterbuck said, "and play an extremely fast, skilled team that's coming off not playing the night before. I'm sure it had something to do with it. I'm pretty sure we gave it all we had. I don't think we held anything back. I think the guys in here are pretty exhausted."
Harding ended a pair of Capitals seven-game streaks: Washington failed to score in the first period - and failed to score the game's first goal.
Clutterbuck opened the scoring early in the second with a drive from the top of the right circle seconds after a Washington penalty expired.
Green tied the score with a one-timer from Tomas Fleischmann on a power play, making him the 11th Capitals player to score during Ovechkin's absence.
Pothier put the Capitals ahead with a wrister from the left circle 2 minutes into the final period.
NOTES: Mathieu Perreault assisted on the winning goal, giving him a goal and three assists in five games since being called up from the minors. ... Pothier has two goals and three assists in his last four games. ... The Wild haven't won in Washington since Nov. 21, 2002.