The Ottawa Senators had a simple goal: win a hockey game.
Not that they had failed to win in the 2013-14 NHL season – though a record of 16-18-7 heading into Monday's game was hardly what had been predicted, and certainly expected. But they had not won two games in a row since before Remembrance Day.
The American Thanksgiving had passed; Christmas had passed; it seemed entirely possible that the year itself would pass before they could put together the most minor of strings possible: two wins.
"Two in a row," said Senators defenceman Marc Methot before the puck dropped. "That's our goal."
Mission accomplished, as Ottawa defeated the Washington Capitals 3-1 in an exciting match that featured some of the prettiest goals of the Senators' up-and-down season.
"This can be a turning point for us," hoped head coach Paul MacLean.
Having defeated Boston Bruins 4-3 in a scrambling, chaotic Saturday night contest in Ottawa, MacLean's Senators were again home, this time facing a team with a far more envious record of 20-14-5 (now 20-15-5), and one that seemed a playoff certainty at the halfway point of the season. They also had Alexander Ovechkin, the NHL's leading goal scorer with 30 – and anxious to end a rare three-game personal drought.
It was, however, the Capitals, not the Senators, who gained a simple goal first. In a poor Ottawa moment barely two minutes into the game, Washington winger Joel Ward was given time to find the puck lost in his skates and cuff a low backhand in past Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson.
The bad goal took a while for Ottawa to shake off, but 10 minutes later Mika Zibanejad and Cory Conacher streaked up the ice and completed an impressive pass-return-pass that saw Zibanejad jam the puck into the empty side of the net back of Washington goaltender Philipp Grubauer.
"It was a really nice pass," said Zibanejad, still smiling when the game was done.
Grubauer, a 22-year-old German drafted 112 overall in the 2010 entry draft, could not be faulted on the Ottawa goals. He has been a most pleasant surprise for the Capitals this season, posting a 5-1-2 record and a .937 save percentage in the nine games in which he has appeared.
Zibanejad has relished the opportunity to move up in the Ottawa lineup and replace injured captain Jason Spezza, centring Conacher and Milan Michalek on what should be the team's top line – but rarely has been.
"For me, it's just to keep it simple," Zibanejad said prior to the Washington game, "make sure they get the puck and create space with my skating for both myself and them. I think it's a good mix, all three of us kind of skate and are shifty, nifty players, too – so we try to read off each other. It's been working so far."
The Senators, already missing their captain and assistant captain Chris Phillips to injury, lost their other assistant captain, Chris Neil, to a lower body injury in the first period of the game.
Despite the lost veterans, Ottawa went ahead 2-1 in the second period when Bobby Ryan fed Kyle Turris a pass just outside the Washington blueline. Turris split the defence and deked poor Grubauer as if they were playing in the driveway, not in front of 20,193 fans.
"A beautiful pass by Bobby," Turris said, rather echoing Zimbanejad.
The Capitals, led by a goal-hungry Ovechkin – the Capitals captain had four shots in the second period alone – pressed hard throughout the second period, and but for the stellar play of Anderson they might have tied and gone ahead in the match.
Anderson played as if it were again…2013. It is, of course, for one last day, but this night he seemed to regain the skill and poise – not to neglect the blind luck – that had given him a career year during last year's shortened season.
Anderson faced 35 shots, Grubauer 38, though Anderson's saves were by far the more dramatic.
By game's end, the fans were once again chanting, as they had a year ago.
"He played a great fame," said Turris of his goaltender, "[Anderson] was real solid for us and gave us a chance."
"I thought he played with a lot of confidence," added MacLean, "and that gave his teammates some confidence."
The Senators had, as forward Clarke MacArthur had put it earlier in the day, "a great opportunity to turn around."
And, for once, they seized it.
With the Washington net empty, Erik Karlsson raced up the ice on a clean breakaway, only to pass that puck over to MacArthur for the shot that, finally, gave Ottawa two victories in a row.
For MacArthur, it was his first goal in a dry 10 games.
"It was the right thing to do," Karlsson said of passing the puck off to his teammate.
The two points moved the Senators almost to .500 (17-18-7) but also to a fingernail grip on a playoff spot and leaves them only four points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs heading into the Winter Classic game against the Detroit Red Wings.
"Hopefully," said Karlsson as they players began leaving, "2014 can be a little better for us."
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