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Capitals again show their depth and turn back the Flyers

Brett Connolly beats Flyers goalie Carter Hart for the first of his two goals Thursday night in the Capitals’ 5-2 win at Philadelphia. (Tom Mihalek/Associated Press)

Brett Connolly didn’t react at first, calmly turning away from the net upon seeing the puck drop into it. But then the emotion seeped out, Connolly kicking up a leg as he swung his fists to his side and screamed. On this night, he was the Washington Capitals’ greatest scoring threat — not Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom or T.J. Oshie or any of the team’s other offensive fixtures.

The Capitals beat the Philadelphia Flyers, 5-2, with their depth on Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center, getting the type of varied scoring that made Washington a Stanley Cup champion last season. It’s what the team will need again if it hopes to defend that title when the playoffs start in a month. This win, which featured two goals and three points from Connolly and 22 saves from Braden Holtby, kept the Capitals in first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Washington expected desperation from the Flyers, who came in just five points out of a wild card spot. Their 15-4-2 record since the all-star break impressively vaulted them back into postseason contention after a miserable first half, and with the Eastern Conference standings so tight, Thursday’s contest was essentially a must-win for Philadelphia. While 20-year-old rookie goaltender Carter Hart returned in net, the Flyers were without top forward Jakub Voracek, serving the second game of his two-game suspension for interference.

Washington had its own reasons for desperation. The Capitals started the night atop the Metropolitan by just two points, and while players have largely shrugged off the importance of winning a fourth straight crown, it could mean an easier matchup in the first round and then home-ice advantage for the second round. Just as they did in this building a week ago, the Capitals started well with Connolly scoring just 2:53 into the game after defenseman John Carlson batted down a puck to keep it from sailing out of the zone and then Michal Kempny found Connolly open at the back door.

Washington’s third line produced a second goal 9:30 into the frame. This time, Connolly fanned on a shot, but the puck fortuitously bounced right to center Lars Eller in front of the net. Hart stopped Eller’s first attempt but Eller scored on his own rebound to lift the Capitals to a 2-0 lead. He now has three goals in his past four games, and that trio getting hot has played a large part in the team winning eight of its past nine.

Eller and Connolly have played beside each other for the vast majority of their three years together in Washington, and Carl Hagelin, acquired in a trade with Los Angeles three weeks ago, is their newest linemate, complementing the other two with his speed and aggressive forechecking. In his first 10 games with the Capitals, Hagelin has two goals and two assists.

Washington got out to a two-goal lead against Pittsburgh two nights earlier, but the Penguins responded with three unanswered goals in less than two minutes in the second period, taking the lead and not relinquishing it. The Flyers trimmed the Capitals’ lead just 1:03 into the second period, forward James van Riemsdyk scoring with a shot through traffic just three seconds after Philadelphia’s power play expired.

But Washington was able to regain its two-goal margin with Connolly’s second goal and third point of the game. Philadelphia’s Philippe Myers couldn’t corral the puck at the Flyers’ offensive blue line, and Connolly carried it up the ice before sniping it over Hart for his 19th goal of the season.

A top-10 draft pick in 2010 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Connolly struggled to live up to expectations with his offensive production, but under less pressure in a third-line role for the Capitals, Connolly has flourished. He posted back-to-back 15-goal seasons (career highs) before this one and is poised for his first 20-goal, 40-point campaign.

The timing couldn’t be better with Connolly scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. General Manager Brian MacLellan said in January that the Capitals would be interested in re-signing him, but with the team typically spending to the salary-cap ceiling, it would largely depend on how much financial flexibility the team has after extending 23-year-old winger Jakub Vrana, a pending restricted free agent.

After Washington’s third line accounted for the team’s first three goals, the fourth came from forward Tom Wilson, punching in center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s feed from the high slot. That marked his 20th goal, and Kuznetsov snagged the puck he scored with as a keepsake for reaching the 20-goal marker for a first time. He’s the fourth Capitals player to have tallied at least 20 goals this season, another testament to what can make Washington a challenge to match up against come the playoffs.

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