ANAHEIM, Calif. — His team itched for a jolt and his goaltender needed support, so forward Alex Ovechkin — the Washington Capitals’ captain, the NHL’s soon-to-be leading scorer, the siege engine on skates — glided across the ice bearing the gift of comfort. He found Justin Peters, again occupying the role of beleaguered backup, stretching alone along the goal line. He bent over and began to talk.
Ovechkin had understood the importance Sunday night’s 5-3 victory over the Anaheim Ducks would hold for Peters and the Capitals, both hunting for confidence boosts as their three-game tour through California reached its final location. And now, during a first-period television timeout, while his teammates faced a one-goal deficit and braced for a critical penalty kill, Ovechkin quietly announced his intention to become their savior. With his stick, he tapped Peters on the pads. With his glove, he drummed Peters on the mask.
“Keep going and shut the door for us,” Ovechkin said, then skated away, all but reassuring Peters he could handle the rest.
With the fathers of many players in attendance, intoxicated by the behind-the-scenes experience of the past two nights — and whatever else was served up inside their luxury box at Honda Center — Ovechkin backed up his word to Peters. His four-point eruption included two assists that helped rookie forward Andre Burakovsky to the first multi-goal game of his young career. He ushered Peters, who made 30 saves, to the netminder’s first victory since Nov. 8. He lifted Washington onto his shoulders and rocketed everyone from this sun-splashed state toward Pittsburgh for the last installment of their longest road trip of the season.
“He’s grabbed this team by the reins many times before,” Peters said. “Seems to get goals for us when we need them.”
A night of revelry with their fathers — and later a full day of cross-country flying — awaited the Capitals, but first they handed Peters a rousing ovation inside their dressing room. After allowing three goals or more in seven straight starts, time was running out on the 28-year-old backup, and teammates felt they had handcuffed him in unfortunate situations before.
So here Peters stood, stumbling after only 66 seconds had passed. After Washington iced the puck and lost a defensive-zone draw, Peters gifted the Ducks a juicy rebound into the slot, where forward Andrew Cogliano belted the puck back through a gaping five hole.
Only 16 seconds passed before Ovechkin answered. After center Nicklas Backstrom won the draw clean over all-star center Ryan Getzlaf, Ovechkin kicked the puck off his skate and whipped it between goaltender John Gibson’s legs. Getzlaf spun around and flung his stick high into the air, an oh-come-on display of frustration.
Once Corey Perry’s missile from the slot put the Ducks ahead 2-1 less than six minutes into the night and defenseman Matt Niskanen’s cross-checking penalty threatened more doom, Ovechkin felt compelled to find Peters and offer encouragement. And soon, after the Capitals snuffed Niskanen’s minor, he stormed to the league’s scoring summit, yanking them along for the climb.
Making his 10th regular season NHL appearance, Gibson had never seen Ovechkin’s blistering one-timer this close, so when the puck spun off the shaft of defenseman Sami Vatanen’s stick, the 21-year-old was helpless. It curled underneath Gibson’s armpit, like an unhittable slider, and moved Ovechkin past Rick Nash as the NHL’s leading goal scorer with 36. Backstrom’s secondary assist also pushed him atop the league with 43.
“In my opinion, that’s the way it should be,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Ovi’s the best goal scorer in the league, and probably a big statement here, I think Backie’s the best player in the league.”
The Capitals had hoped to catch Anaheim’s defensemen cheating into the offensive zone, and thanks to two springing passes from blue-liners, they spotted Peters a two-goal lead midway through the second period. First, Niskanen capitalized on an ill-timed change and found forward Marcus Johansson for a firm wrist shot. Then, defenseman Jack Hillen threaded a long feed to Ovechkin, boxing out his man at the offensive blue line. Ovechkin raced forward and hopped the puck to Burakovsky for the rookie’s eighth goal of the season.
The Ducks chopped Washington’s two-goal lead in half on Cogliano’s second goal, but a costly turnover less than halfway into the third period again left Ovechkin leading a three-on-one rush. He popped the puck to Burakovsky, who had returned to the lineup after getting scratched in Los Angeles, with his father, Robert, a former NHLer, watching on the team’s annual dads’ trip.
Burakovsky juked inside, then out. Gibson sprawled. Burakovsky nudged the puck forward. Across the net, Ovechkin watched the goal, then raised his arms. Peters had shut the door enough. It was indeed okay. The captain handled the rest.
“Either the bigger the stage of the bigger the importance of the game, the bigger he plays,” Trotz said. “And that’s rare.”