By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010; D01
CHICAGO -- It took more than two periods and the ejection of their best player for the Washington Capitals to get fully invested in a game that began at the early hour of 11:30 a.m. Central time.
But when they awoke, Nicklas Backstrom and his teammates finally looked like the NHL's best team. Backstrom scored two of Washington's four unanswered goals, including one late in overtime, to defeat the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-3, in a game that may well have been a preview of this year's Stanley Cup finals.
Thanks to another controversial hit by two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin, however, Backstrom's end-to-end rush in the extra session wasn't the focus after the league-leading Capitals humbled the league's third-ranked team before a national television audience and a disgusted capacity crowd at United Center.
Ovechkin was ejected for shoving Brian Campbell at 12 minutes 16 seconds of the first period, sending the Blackhawk back-first into the boards behind the Chicago net.
Campbell had just reversed the puck when Ovechkin, who outweighs the defenseman by 34 pounds, shoved him on his side, causing Campbell to lose his balance and hit the boards with a thump.
Campbell lay down for several minutes as he was attended to by the Chicago training staff; Ovechkin, who immediately gestured toward the fallen Blackhawk as if to apologize, was first sent to the penalty box, then escorted from the rink by a linesman after being assessed five minutes for boarding and his third misconduct of the season. Campbell did not return to the game and will be "out for a bit" according to Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville.
It was unclear after the game whether Ovechkin would face further punishment from the NHL, but the league tends to come down harder on players with prior history. And with Ovechkin there's plenty to consider. His first ejection of 2009-10 came Nov. 25 against Buffalo when he was assessed five minutes for boarding Sabres agitator Patrick Kaleta. Five days later, he was tossed in Raleigh, N.C., after being given five minutes for kneeing the Hurricanes' Tim Gleason. Ovechkin also was suspended by the NHL for two games for the hit on Gleason.
"It was not a hard hit," Ovechkin said. "I just little push him . . . but I don't think it has to be five minutes. I've seen the replay a couple of times. He fell bad."
Coach Bruce Boudreau added: "I thought it was a push from the side [where] he could see his numbers. It wasn't dead on into the boards. Campbell was turning. Alex didn't extend his arms. He just pushed him. Sometimes you don't realize how strong Alex is."
Quenneville disagreed, saying only, "It was a tough hit, a dangerous hit."
Things got worse for the Capitals before they got better.
With Washington already down a man because of Ovechkin's penalty, Alexander Semin was sent off for goaltender interference, and Jonathan Toews wasted little time capitalizing. The Chicago captain netted his second goal of the game, beating José Theodore on a rebound.
The only goal of the second period came off the stick of John Madden, who pushed the Blackhawks' lead to 3-0.
But the Capitals have shown over and again this season that they're never out of it thanks to their league-leading offense and top-ranked power play. Several players also said the team was motivated by losing Ovechkin.
"There's two ways to look at it," said Brooks Laich, whose goal started the Capitals' rally. "You can feel empty that Alex is gone or you can band together and everyone takes it upon themselves to have a bigger role. Alex does it every night for us. So it's nice, for once, to give one back to him."
Moments after Semin drew a double-minor penalty for a high stick, Laich put a rebound past Antti Niemi at 5:29 of the third period.
On the scoring play, Chicago's Colin Fraser also was whistled for high sticking, setting up a five-on-three for two minutes.
Niemi, who finished with 26 stops and is making a bid to beat out Cristobal Huet for the starting job in the playoffs, made a pair of outstanding stops on Backstrom during the two-man advantage, but as the penalties expired the Swedish center fired in the puck, which took a fortuitous bounce off the end boards. On the following shift, Eric Fehr snapped a pass from David Steckel to knot the game at 3. Steckel, who was singled out for praise afterward by Boudreau, finished with a game-high seven hits and was awarded the team's red hard hat.
The Blackhawks, apparently drained from Saturday's nearly last-second loss in Philadelphia, mustered only one shot in the third period.
They registered two in overtime. But Backstrom made sure Washington's only shot in the extra session started the Capitals' four-game rip off right.
Backstrom, who came into the game riding an eight-game goal drought, gathered a loose puck in his own end, raced down the wing, turned Brent Seabrook inside out, then fired the puck past Niemi as he was hit by Duncan Keith.
"I was kind of tired when I skated over the blue line," he said. "I couldn't find the pass, so I tried to challenge the D-man. I got lucky there that it worked out this time.
"We know Ovie is the key to our team," Backstrom added. "He scores a lot of goals and he creates a lot of chances, but we have shown before that other players can play, too. That's something that's good for the playoffs."
Capitals notes: John Erskine, Brendan Morrison, Scott Walker, Quintin Laing and Tyler Sloan were healthy scratches. . . .
Star Chicago winger Marian Hossa and defenseman Kim Johnsson were late scratches because of upper-body injuries.