Photo by Associated Press.
Originally Published: March 26, 2017 6 a.m.
WASHINGTON — A milestone goal by Alex Ovechkin and a timely score by Daniel Winnik helped the Washington Capitals survive a scare against one of the NHL's worst teams.
Ovechkin scored his 30th goal of the season and Winnik had the game-winner and an empty-netter as the Capitals overcame listless stretches to beat the lowly but pesky Arizona Coyotes 4-1 Saturday night for their fourth consecutive victory. Ovechkin became the third player in league history to score 30-plus goals in each of his first 12 seasons, joining Mike Gartner (15) and Wayne Gretzky (13).
"It's very huge, obviously," said Ovechkin, who scored on the power play in the first period. "It's nice to be in history. But more history to come."
Ovechkin and the Capitals are focused on winning the Stanley Cup that has eluded them for the past decade, and their fifth victory in six games pushed them closer to home-ice advantage. Even with a league-best 106 points, Washington only leads Metropolitan Division rivals Pittsburgh and Columbus by three points.
The competitive Presidents' Trophy race is why coach Barry Trotz considers every game down the stretch a must-win. His team almost let this one slip away as Arizona hung around, thanks to 29 saves from Mike Smith, and tied the score 12:29 into the third period on a rebound goal by Peter Holland.
"I was just trying to be solid and keep it close," Smith said.
He did — until Winnik beat him with 4:39 left on a wrist shot off a new stick he was trying for the first time. Then, Justin Williams scored 32 seconds later and Winnik sealed the Capitals' franchise-record 31st home victory with an empty-netter.
"Home ice is everything in the playoffs," said Winnik, who tied his career high of 11 goals. "We have a lot of confidence in this building, and I think that's got to carry over into playoffs."
Playing like they did against Arizona won't cut it in the playoffs as Washington sleepwalked through parts of the game after putting up 16 of the first 19 shots. While Smith kept the Coyotes in it with saves like his sliding stop on Kevin Shattenkirk on a 2-on-0 rush, the Capitals made sure not to get frustrated.
"That was key," said Shattenkirk, who had two assists. "It's really important at this time of year and going into playoffs, you have to be unflappable."
Braden Holtby was pretty unflappable in stopping 28 of 29 shots for his 39th victory. Holtby said the Capitals' success since a four-game skid showed their collective maturity.
For the Coyotes, who have the second-fewest points in the league ahead of only the Colorado Avalanche, it was another tough moment for a young team.
"I'd like to see us get mentally tougher," coach Dave Tippett said. "We've got young players that are learning good lessons. I'd like to see our veterans be a lot mentally tougher."
Winnik called it "classic Coyotes hockey" under Tippett to hang around and score, but was happy with how the Capitals responded. Even though they're atop the league standings, there's still time to develop winning habits in time for playoffs.
"These last few games, they're important for our psyche," said Williams, who scored his 21st. "They're important certainly for us to get first in our conference and first in the league — that's what we're obviously striving for — and for our confidence, to know that we can win one-goal games, to know that we can win coming from behind, to know when the game is going into the third, we can win it. These are all things that are essential."
Coyotes captain Shane Doan missed his fifth consecutive game with a lower-body injury, but could be nearing a return. ... These teams meet again Friday in Glendale, their second and final meeting. ... Winnik tied his career high with his 11th goal of the season.
Coyotes: Wrap up their five-game road trip Monday at the St. Louis Blues
Capitals: Begin a season-high five-game road trip Tuesday at the reeling Minnesota Wild, who have lost 10 of their past 13.