WASHINGTON – Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have rarely found themselves apart from each other in five-on-five situations throughout recent years. That hadn’t changed under new Washington Capitals’ head coach Dale Hunter – until Tuesday night against the Nashville Predators.
With the aid of a new-look line – Backstrom at center, flanked by Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansson on the wings – the Capitals defeated Nashville, 4-1, in front of an announced 18,506 fans at Verizon Center. The new line scored two goals during five-on-five situations – a wraparound by Backstrom at the 15:51 mark of the first period and a wicked snap shot from Semin at the 10:21 mark of the third period.
The Capitals (17-14-1, 35 points) came out strong in the first period, out-shooting Nashville 11-4 in the frame and each line supplying energy that manifested into scoring chances, especially the new line centered by Backstrom. Washington carried a 2-0 lead into the second period against the Predators (17-12-4, 38 points).
“I think we played pretty good,” Johansson, a center by trade but a winger for the night, said of his line. “The first period, especially, was good. We kinda fell back a little bit in the second, I think. But we had a 2-0 lead; we didn’t need to score, so maybe that’s why. I think we played good. They’re very easy guys to play with.”
Said Hunter of the Capitals’ fast start: “I liked the first period more than anything, where we came out and were ready to play and we took it to them instead of waiting to see what happens.”
Ovechkin, along with winger Troy Brouwer, shifted to a line centered by Brooks Laich. Ovechkin was active throughout the game, scoring the game’s first goal on a breakaway off a send-away by defenseman Karl Alzner. Ovechkin also registered seven shots on goal and three hits in 15:05 worth of ice time.
“He’s a special player,” said of Ovechkin. “He came out here hitting and scoring and passing the puck. He was a complete player tonight. Especially in the first, we needed a lift and he came out and he played hard. Just not him, but I thought the team did.”
With two lines generating a lot of offense, the Capitals became a harder club to defend, according to Hunter, even if it meant separating Backstrom and Ovechkin.
“They played well together. They moved the puck. They interchanged well. They had great scoring chances,” said of Backstrom’s new line. “You put Backsie and Ovie together and they can shut [the opposition] down more, but this way, with two lines going like they were, it’s hard to shut down.”
Brouwer also scored for the Capitals, tipping in a Dennis Wideman shot from the point on the power play at the 13:46 mark of the third period. Sergei Kostitsyn scored Nashville’s lone goal of the game in the third period.
Michal Neuvirth started his third consecutive game in net for the Capitals, and for the third consecutive game, he played a solid game in net. Neuvirth turned away 20 of 21 shots and has saved 72 out of the 75 shots he has seen over the past three games. Neuvirth, along with fellow goaltender Tomas Vokoun, struggled in November and is trying to bounce back from it. Neuvirth posted an .865 save percentage in six October outings.
“I’m getting more comfortable every game,” said Neuvirth. “I know I can still be better and know I can still control the rebounds a little bit better than I did tonight. But, I mean, I’m feeling great right now.”
Hunter wouldn’t commit to a starting goaltender for when the Capitals face the New Jersey Devils on the road Friday night. “You always like goalies to get on a run, but I have to wait and see what I’m going to do in New Jersey,” Hunter said.
Before the game began, the Capitals put together a ceremony for forward Mike Knuble before the game dedicating Knuble playing in his 1,000th career NHL game. “Any time a guy can play 1,000 games, it’s an unbelievable feat,” said Brouwer. “We’re so happy for Mike and his family. It’s a lot of road trips for him to go on and a little tough for his family to take part in. But just a happy occasion like that — something where you can celebrate a great achievement, it picks the guys up and gets you ready to play.”