Capitals finally make it look easy with shutout of Panthers

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Photo - Nick Wass/AP
Braden Holtby finished with 27 saves and added an assist as he earned his fourth career shutout for the Capitals.
Nick Wass/AP Braden Holtby finished with 27 saves and added an assist as he earned his fourth career shutout for the Capitals.
Sports,Brian McNally

All that had gone wrong early in this 2013 season finally went right for the Capitals.

Star winger Alex Ovechkin scored his first even-strength goal of the season. Washington finally took its first three-goal lead at any point 12 games in, and it later stretched that advantage to four and ultimately five. It was the first time the Caps had topped three goals and the Verizon Center crowd finally went home happy with a coupon for wings from a local restaurant chain.

That all added up to a dominating 5-0 victory over the Florida Panthers on Saturday night. A team desperate for a win of any kind after one of the worst starts in team history received two goals from Troy Brouwer to go along with Ovechkin's and others from Joel Ward and Mathieu Perreault. Their best effort of the season came after a players-only meeting Friday following an embarrassing loss at Pittsburgh the day before.

"I think the time right now we just have to turn around. And that kind of game we need," Ovechkin said. "Everybody was so focused today, like, we have a meeting for the guys, and we just said, like, 'Be focused, bring energy and do what you have to do best.' It works."

Braden Holtby finished with 27 saves and his fourth career shutout -- a much-needed effort after general manager George McPhee issued a stern warning to his young goalies this week that their teammates needed more from them. Holtby even added an assist with a beautiful pass to Brouwer in the second period. It was the second helper of his career.

"He made big saves and very timely saves, which isn't what we've got so far this season," Brouwer said of Holtby. "And then the play that he passed up to me. He moves the puck as well as any goalie, and we expect that out of him. ... To be able to see me at the far blueline and such a good pass -- as [teammate Jason Chimera said] a better pass than he could make -- it was good to see."

The Capitals (3-8-1, seven points) struck first late in the opening period. Nicklas Backstrom carried the puck into the offensive zone, eluding four Florida defenseman in the process. It was fitting that the play started with a John Carlson takeaway in the defensive zone. Backstrom worked the puck to Wojtek Wolski behind the net, and his pressure -- along with a crashing Brouwer -- helped force a failed clearing attempt by Panthers forward Jerred Smithson. The puck slid directly to Carlson, whose shot from the right circle deflected off Brouwer and past goalie Jose Theodore (16 saves, 21 shots). It was his fourth goal of the season and gave Washington a 1-0 lead with 2:15 left in the first period.

"Tonight is a game that we need to model the rest of our season after," Brouwer said. "Being tight in 'D' zone, [Holtby] made big saves for us in big times, we moved the puck forward real well and our penalty kill was good again tonight. Our power play scored. Everything was working in our direction, and it's because we were working hard."

Holtby -- given the start against Florida after coming on in relief Thursday vs. Pittsburgh -- was up to the challenge. At 8:54 of the first, Holtby made a key glove save on Panthers forward Kris Versteeg on a two-on-one rush to keep the game scoreless. Later in the period he made a skate save on Tomas Kopecky but was pulled way out of position in the process. As Kopecky tried a wraparound, however, defenseman Jeff Schultz was there to keep him from stuffing the puck inside the vacant left post.

Holtby helped his own cause early in the second period on Brouwer's second goal. He saw Florida was slow completing a long line change and fired a pass up ice tape-to-tape for Brouwer waiting at the opposing blueline. He carried it into the offensive zone and ripped a shot top corner past Theodore for a 2-0 lead at 3:36. It was just their fourth two-goal lead of the season for the Caps -- the others coming in wins over Philadelphia and Buffalo and a loss at Ottawa. That was the first power-play point for a Washington goalie since Tomas Vokoun on Dec. 30, 2011, against Buffalo.

The Caps then took their first three-goal lead of the entire season at 11:55 of the second thanks in part to some nice stick work from forwards Perreault and Eric Fehr along the right boards against Florida's Versteeg and Drew Shore. They forced the puck into the slot, where Ward skated onto it and notched his team-best fifth goal of the season.

Ovechkin's goal came off a faceoff at 3:49 of the third. Center Mike Ribeiro won it and slipped the puck to Chimera, who quickly set up Ovechkin for the one-timer. He now has points in four straight games and two goals and three assists during that stretch as he starts to heat up. It can't come at a more critical time.

"I think any win at this point is what we're looking for," Holtby said. "We already gave ourselves a big enough hole with being complacent. But right now we're not going to step off the gas for the rest of the year. That's our plan, and we're going to do it."

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bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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Brian McNally

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner