Alex Ovechkin could only laugh after he scored his first goal. Everything seems to be going in for both him and the Washington Capitals, so of course his shot that was well wide bounced off Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall and then redirected right into the net. He kicked up a leg, tossed his head back and chuckled at his good fortune.
When he scored again 16 minutes later, there was no luck involved: He charged down the left side of the ice on a two-on-one and then kept the puck for himself, placing his shot perfectly this time.
Then, 9:33 into the third period, Ovechkin’s shot from the left faceoff circle hit the top of goaltender Jimmy Howard’s extended right pad and dropped onto the ice before dribbling across the goal line. Ovechkin skated back into the glass and lifted both arms as the Capital One Arena crowd mimicked him in celebration of his first hat trick this season and the 21st of his illustrious career.
“You think maybe there are not other ways he can kind of amaze you and wow you,” forward T.J. Oshie said, “but there was another example tonight.”
Washington’s first quarter of the season was marred by inconsistency and uneven play, but the Capitals, who have now played 30 games, have rounded into form. Tuesday’s 6-2 rout of the Red Wings marked the team’s third straight win, and the manner in which the Capitals are winning — this is their second straight victory by a margin of four goals — has their goal of repeating as Stanley Cup champions looking all the more possible. Ovechkin, with his league-leading 25 goals and 12-game point streak, is leading the charge just six months after he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most outstanding player in the postseason.
Thirteen years into his career, could Ovechkin be playing some of his best hockey?
“Um, yeah,” he said. “After last year, obviously you just enjoy it. Of course you don’t want to too much enjoy it, but I try to do the same thing over and over again. It’s fun. Obviously you can see our team have fun right now.”
Indeed, while Ovechkin’s efforts have stood out, Washington again got contributions from all over its lineup against Detroit. Goaltender Braden Holtby stopped 35 shots, center Nicklas Backstrom tallied four assists, and in his first game back from a concussion that caused him to miss 11 games, Oshie scored a goal on a second-period power play.
The Capitals had gone 9-2-0 without Oshie, and while he was eager to get back in the lineup, his teammates’ success also made staying patient easier. This was Oshie’s fifth concussion, and he acknowledged that the symptoms lingered longer. Coach Todd Reirden didn’t exactly ease him back into the lineup, playing him on the top line beside Backstrom and Ovechkin and on the top power-play unit, which was especially bolstered by Oshie’s return.
The man-advantage had failed to score over the past three games, but Oshie’s presence made the top unit whole for the first time since Nov. 14, and the Capitals were able to convert on their two opportunities. Brett Connolly scored the first goal, deflecting John Carlson’s point shot, and Oshie accounted for the second, one-timing Backstrom’s pass from the slot 10:06 into the second period to give Washington a 5-0 lead.
“Obviously you have to be able to score goals from that [power-play] spot, but to me it’s the recovery element, it’s the intensity, it’s puck battles, it’s just entries, running the routes properly,” Reirden said. “All the little things that he does that we keep stats for on our power play . . . and where the importance lies and how your team can have success — our numbers were down in those areas on the puck recoveries and on entries. All of a sudden, that changes with him, and it had a real positive impact on our team tonight.”
The Capitals again flashed their depth, getting a goal from their fourth line for the sixth time in the past five games. Center Nic Dowd set up Travis Boyd on a two-on-one 10:50 into the first period for an early 2-0 advantage, and that marked back-to-back games with a goal for Boyd, the first goals of his NHL career. He has four points in the past three games and is making a strong case to stay in the lineup as Washington’s roster gets healthier.
Right wing Tom Wilson, who missed his third straight game with a concussion, skated for the first time since his injury Tuesday morning, and he is on track to potentially play in the Capitals’ next game, Friday at Carolina.
Just 129 seconds after Boyd’s goal came Ovechkin’s first of the night, continuing another common thread in Washington’s wins. Ovechkin has tallied at least one point in all 18 of the Capitals’ victories, and Ovechkin has 13 goals and six assists during this 12-game point streak. More impressive is that of the 19 points he has recorded during that stretch, just one was on the power play.
He is on pace to eclipse the NHL-best 49 goals he scored last season, and if he continues averaging roughly 1.3 points per game, this will be his best season since 2009-10, when he was 24. He’s 33 now, when most other players are well past their primes.
“The age he’s at, to still continue to not only want to get better, but to be able to,” Reirden said. “After just the way he’s played the game with such a physical presence and the energy he has and the size he is, it’s not easy.”
On Tuesday night, Ovechkin watched with amusement as hats hit the ice in the wake of his third goal. He had only needed four shots, and as he took his seat on the bench, he was laughing once again.