So when the captain scored on a designed play after a faceoff win by Evgeny Kuznetsov midway through the first period Saturday night at UBS Arena, it appeared a weight had been lifted — from Ovechkin and his team. The goal, his first in five-on-five play this season, helped the Capitals to a 4-1 win over the New York Islanders, who had shut them out just nine days earlier in Washington. Ovechkin added a second goal, the 826th of his career, when he hit the empty net with three seconds left.
Hunter Shepard, in his second NHL start, made 36 saves to improve to 2-0. Semyon Varlamov, the former Washington netminder who stymied the Capitals in their previous matchup, stopped 24 of 27 shots. The Capitals helped Shepard by blocking 32 shots; forward Beck Malenstyn and defenseman Lucas Johansen led the way with five apiece.
“Everybody was all-in,” Ovechkin said. “It was back-to-back. We played against good team. We all knew what they were going to do. Everybody played smart, played simple. Shep today was unbelievable. Makes huge saves. ‘D’ do a great job blocking shots.”
In their first nine games, the Capitals (7-4-2) scored first just once. They now have scored the first goal in each of their past four games, a run Ovechkin extended with his first-period tally Saturday. The Islanders (5-5-3), who were idle Friday night as Washington beat the New Jersey Devils in Newark, clearly looked like the fresher team, and their speed in transition gave the Capitals issues. But after Ovechkin fired a wrist shot into the far side past Varlamov at 9:18, Washington settled in.
Ovechkin has had similar looks this season, but he was finally able to score on one Saturday.
“Me and Kuzy talk about right before the faceoff,” he said. “Kuzy tell me what to do, and then it works. I have to listen more [to] Kuzy.”
A Shepard turnover behind the net led to the Islanders’ tying goal, scored by defenseman Alexander Romanov with 43 seconds left in the period. Then Capitals defenseman Alex Alexeyev was whistled for holding with less than two seconds remaining, setting up New York to begin the second period with momentum and a power play. Though the Capitals killed the penalty, extending their streak without allowing a power-play goal to 18 shorthanded opportunities, it didn’t do much to change the momentum.
The second period was frenetic, with scoring chances and odd-man rushes at both ends. But despite the chaos — one sequence featured Capitals winger Sonny Milano tumbling into the net with Varlamov after a scoring opportunity, then the Islanders’ Casey Cizikas working against defenseman Rasmus Sandin on a one-on-one rush the other way — Washington scored twice to regain, then extend, its lead.
At 13:05, the Capitals’ fourth line recorded its third goal in two games when center Nic Dowd batted a loose puck past Varlamov. Winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who had a goal and an assist in Washington’s 4-2 win over the Devils, put the first shot on Varlamov before Dowd ensured it crossed the line.
The depth scoring continued for Washington when third-line forward Aliaksei Protas finished an opportunity created by winger Matthew Phillips off the forecheck. Phillips picked up the puck behind the net and sent a pass in front to Protas, who had plenty of space to put the Capitals ahead 3-1 with just 40 seconds left in the period.
“Those second and third goals … those are big,” Capitals Coach Spencer Carbery said. “Now you can play from in front, and you can see what happens tonight. The Islanders had a ton of good looks, lot of [offensive] zone time, but they’re pressing. They’re throwing things at the net. Now you’re forcing the issue.”
Washington was under siege for much of the third period, but Shepard’s work in goal and the Capitals’ defense — despite missing Martin Fehervary, who left the Devils game with a lower-body injury — preserved the lead. Though the Islanders had the majority of the possession and generated lengthy sequences in their offensive zone, Carbery said he was pleased with how his team limited New York’s dangerous scoring opportunities and held on to sweep the back-to-back.
“Difficult circumstances with the back-to-back, on the road, losing a few bodies mid-trip,” Carbery said. “For us to find a way — it wasn’t pretty at times, and [we] had to defend quite a bit, but we found a way. … It’s a character win for our group and a great couple days.”
Note: Fehervary was placed on injured reserve Saturday. Sandin was a game-time decision with a “sore face” after taking a high hit against the Devils, so the Capitals recalled Dylan McIlrath from Hershey, their American Hockey League affiliate, as insurance on the blue line. Sandin was able to play, so McIlrath was a healthy scratch.