By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 1:00 AM
TORONTO - If there was ever a sign that the Washington Capitals are committed as a group to reliable, accountable play in their own end, it may have come late in the third period when Alex Ovechkin slid to the ice to block a slap shot from Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf.
The surging Maple Leafs tried desperately to rally against the Capitals on Saturday night at Air Canada Centre, but unlike the teams' previous two meetings there would be no final comeback. Led by rookie goaltender Braden Holtby, who made 35 saves, and Ovechkin's first hat trick of the season, the Capitals defeated the Maple Leafs, 4-1.
With two wins in three days, Washington (27-14-8) concluded its week-long trip having claimed five of a possible six points with a more defensive-oriented style. The Capitals received the bonuses of seeing Ovechkin break out for his first multigoal game since Oct. 30 and yet another young goaltender shine.
"That's what we've been doing and it's been fairly successful," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of the manner in which the Capitals, who blocked 27 shots, won in his home town. "It might not be the most exciting brand of hockey in the world, but everybody seems to like winning hockey these days. That's what we have to do."
For the second straight game, Washington was able to get off to a fast start with energy from Holtby, whose appeared poised early while making consecutive starts for the first time in his NHL career.
The Capitals had an early miscue at the conclusion of a power play that allowed Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski to race out of the penalty box unguarded, prompting a two-on-one 5 minutes 59 seconds into the contest. The Maple Leafs passed back and forth before Tyler Bozak took a shot from the doorstep that Holtby turned aside with a left-pad save to keep the game scoreless.
"You can usually tell before the game if you're feeling right or not, and to get a save off the start like that, it definitely brings the momentum in your favor," said Holtby, who earned the fourth NHL win of his career. "Plays like that can go either way. They're a matter of inches and luckily tonight it hit the top of my pad and the game kind of changed from there."
Sparked by their goaltender, the Capitals worked at spending time in the Maple Leafs' zone and throwing any chance they had against Toronto goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere (27 saves). With 14:27 remaining in the first period, Washington's adherence to the plan paid off when Ovechkin, creating traffic in front of the net, tipped a point shot by Jeff Schultz past Giguere for a 1-0 lead.
It was just the second first-period goal of the season for Ovechkin, with the other coming on Nov. 14 against the Atlanta Thrashers. After Saturday's opening tally, Boudreau had an inkling it might be a good night for Ovechkin.
"You knew that eventually he was going to break out," Boudreau said. "I thought, 'Okay, he gets that goal early, he's going to be going.' And I thought he was as good as he's been all year."
The second period passed without any goals but with the Capitals doing their best to limit the stellar saves Holtby needed to make. When the Maple Leafs were able to spring Washington's trap, the 21-year-old Saskatchewan native didn't falter.
A little more than a minute into the third, Ovechkin camped out in front of the net again, and when Mike Green's point shot bounced to him in traffic, Washington's captain shot the puck between Giguere's legs to make it 2-0.
"It's not luck. It's hard-working goals," Ovechkin said. "I'll take these goals, and I'm going to try to do the same next game."
The Maple Leafs (19-23-5) answered quickly, though, as Tim Brent scored to end Holtby's shutout bid less than two minutes later. Toronto, which forced shootouts after facing third-period deficits in each of its previous two meetings with Washington this season, began to surge back, getting plenty of time in its offensive zone and causing the Capitals to chase the play for a few shifts.
But Matt Hendricks stripped the puck from Luke Schenn in the neutral zone to manufacture a breakaway. With no opposing skaters around, the gritty forward skated down the center of the ice, faked a shot, pulled up and deked around an outstretched Giguere. One of the Capitals' prettiest goals of the season made it 3-1.
Ovechkin added an empty-net tally for his hat trick and the final margin of victory.
Capitals note: Mike Green was named as an alternate captain to the NHL All-Star Game, along with Vancouver's Ryan Kesler, Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis and Chicago's Patrick Kane. Green will join the team captained by Carolina's Eric Staal as will Kesler, while St. Louis and Kane join Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom. The alternate captains will assist the captains in selecting each team's roster for the game.