Roberto Luongo has historically given the Washington Capitals fits, going 15-1 in his last 16 starts against the Caps.
So Sunday’s tilt with the Panthers at the Verizon Center, against a pesky Florida squad that is big and had previously taken the Capitals to two shootouts, loomed like a tough one coming off of the big Winter Classic victory on Thursday.
Despite being shorthanded five times, including three times in the final period, the Capitals carried the play for much of this contest and garnered a well earned 4-3 victory over the Panthers to improve to 20-11-7 (47 points).
The Capitals are now 10-1-3 in their last 14 games.
Alexander Ovechkin (goal and an assist) had another stellar game and it was his open ice collision with Luongo in the first period that eventually drove the net minder from the cage after forty minutes. Luongo gave up three goals but because his club also tallied three times, he wasn’t saddled with the loss. Al Montoya, who played the third period, gave up a goal on five shots to take the defeat.
Braden Holtby was in net for Washington, his 15th straight start, and he stopped 29 of 32 shots en route to his 18th victory (18-8-6). His save percentage on the season is at .920 and he continues to play well. About the only goal you could fault him on was the third Florida tally, by Nick Bjugstad, which came from down low and beat #70 top shelf in the closing minutes.
After a strong opening period that was scoreless, the Caps struck first on the PP with Ovechkin’s 19th tally of the season off of a sweet pass from Nicklas Backstrom. That first goal is so important this year since the Capitals are now 19-1-2 in that situation against a 1-10-5 record when the opponent gets on the board first. Despite the early lead, the Capitals would play keystone cops at the offensive blue line which led to a two on zero Cats rush. Somehow Holtby managed to stop the first two shots on that sequence, but his defensive help didn’t come quickly or properly enough and the third shot found the back of the twine. Just 85 seconds later Florida took the lead.
In the past, the Caps might have wilted, but not this more resilient bunch under Coach Barry Trotz. The Capitals would storm back, thanks primarily to the line of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward to grab a 3-2 edge heading into period three. From there Ovechkin set up Andre Burakovsky for the fourth goal that ended up being the game winner.
Overall, the Capitals played well but they still have issues taking penalties. They were shorthanded for a total of 9:13 and as chronicled after the Winter Classic win, the number of infractions they are taking must decrease. Granted the call against Brooks Orpik that gave the Cats a 5 on 3 was downright ridiculous and Trotz called out Vincent Trocheck for diving on that play in his post game presser.
Florida is a big and physical team, but the Capitals outworked them on Sunday and that’s why they won the game and the Panthers coach, Gerard Gallant, made that clear afterwards.
“We weren’t good enough. I mean, we battled back and found a way to come close there at the end, but not good enough. We didn’t play hard enough. They were more physical than we were tonight. They wanted the puck battles and that’s why we ended up losing the game at the end,” said Gallant.
Burakovsky, who is only 19 and played in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) last season, received his first start on the first line with Ovechkin and Backstrom and he played well in 12:05 of even strength time. His skill, primarily his hands and shooting ability, is something sorely needed in that top line position and he delivered on Sunday. Trotz liked #65’s play and commended him afterwards.
“He was playing with two big stars, and he didn’t look intimidated. A couple times he shot the puck where sometimes you should make the extra pass, but he got the puck and he just made plays. I like that. Defensively he was pretty sound. We didn’t spend much time in our own end, but he was pretty sound in terms of his tracking and all that, so I was really happy for him. He’s such a great kid and he comes from a great family. He’s a really good hockey player…but I think in the scheme of things, looking at his whole career, he’s going to be a really good player for us,” said Trotz.
So the Capitals continue to keep finding ways to win hockey games and they get two days of practice at Kettler Ice Plex before facing the Maple Leafs in Toronto Wednesday and then they finally play the Flyers, for the first time this season, on Thursday, in Philadelphia. Those are two tough games in a back to back situation and the Caps last loss was on the 2nd night of one of those in New York right before Christmas. It will be interesting to see if Trotz goes with Holtby in net twice or turns to Justin Peters for a start for the first time since November 29th.
Notes: Washington won the face off battle 43-29 with Backstrom going 18-8 from the dot…shot attempts favored the Caps, 63-60…the Panthers were 0 for 5 on the power play while the Caps went 1 for 2 in only 3:16 of man advantage time. Yes, the Caps have been taking too many penalties lately, but some of the calls recently have been beyond bad. Bottom line, the officiating needs to improve too and they need to start penalizing the divers, like Trocheck, and not the players with integrity, such as Orpik.