Backstrom was unharmed, but when Ovechkin wound up as the lone man in the penalty box the Verizon Center crowd became incensed, funneling its ire at the referees. The energy in the building swelled, the home team killed off the minor penalty, and from there the Capitals never looked back.
Washington dominated the Maple Leafs in a 5-1 win Tuesday night for its eighth straight victory and 12th in its past 14 games.
“That’s a penalty that we’ll kill all day. That’s your captain sticking up for one of the best players on our team,” defenseman Jack Hillen said. “I think anybody on our team would have done that and he did a great job. That’s why he’s our captain and that definitely gave us some more momentum.”
The Capitals had already peppered a sluggish Toronto at the start, the Maple Leafs looking every bit of a team playing on back-to-back nights. Even when Hillen’s point shot deflected off Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri and found its way into the net for a 1-0 Washington lead with 14:27 gone in the first, there seemed to be little to amplify the action on the ice.
McClement’s hit offered the catalyst. As Backstrom tried to maintain possession of the puck as he skated toward the boards, the Toronto defenseman shoved him from behind sending the Capitals’ top center into the boards head first.
“I knew he was right behind me, but I don’t think he did it on purpose,” Backstrom said. “I don’t think so, if I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t know, maybe two minutes or something – at least.”
Ovechkin immediately confronted McClement and soon every player on the ice from both sides joined the fray.
The Capitals star winger, who would eventually record his NHL-leading 28th goal of the season and 18th in the past 16 games, played down his actions.
“I just step up for my teammate and I think everybody would do the same if it were happening to me or [Matt Hendricks]. Everybody going to do the same thing.”
As Ovechkin made his way to the penalty box, the once-dormant crowd saluted his defense of a teammate with thunderous chant of “Ovi! Ovi!” Those energetic cheers quickly turned to ire when only one penalty was put on the scoreboard. Many in the crowd of 18,506 believed McClement deserved a minor as well.
Each time Washington’s penalty killers cleared the puck out of the zone or thwarted a Maple Leafs scoring chance the volume rose. Upon thwarting Ovechkin’s minor, the Capitals received a standing ovation.
“You want to stick together. And there’s times where, obviously, you don’t want to take penalties to do it. But it’s great that we killed that penalty,” Coach Adam Oates said. “Because it is important, obviously, we got to protect our guys.”