It was clear on Saturday afternoon that Alex Ovechkin had finally found his dynamic, unstoppable stride. So when the Washington Capitals, already up by a pair of goals against the New Jersey Devils, went back on the power play, center Mike Ribeiro had one objective: Help the captain get a hat trick.
From behind the goal line, he fed the puck across to Ovechkin low in the left circle. The shot went off the outside of the cage. The second time Ribeiro set up the puck in exactly the same manner, however, Ovechkin didn’t miss.
The star winger’s one-timer blasted its way through Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov and over goaltender Johan Hedberg for his third goal of an impressive 5-1 victory. It was the captain’s first four-point game in more than two years and his first hat trick at Verizon Center in more than three years.
“The last 10 games he’s been creating his chances and having a lot of chances being a power forward, and today he was able to put some in,” Ribeiro said. “At the end I was just trying to give him the puck for the hat trick, and he was able to put it in. That’s big for him, it’s big for us that those shots are getting in, and it’s a big win for us.”
A single game doesn’t change the fact that the Capitals (6-10-1) continue to occupy last place in the Southeast Division. But it certainly can serve as a reminder of what an energetic, potent Ovechkin is capable of — and what the Capitals can accomplish when following his lead.
“It is good to see him bust out,” said forward Troy Brouwer, who scored in the third period off a pretty set-up from Ovechkin. “We need him to score to be successful, we all know that. He scored in a lot of different ways tonight, which is what we need out of him.
“We can’t have him just being static and waiting for other guys to feed him the puck. He was in there, working hard, creating his own chances.”
Ovechkin has been establishing plenty of quality opportunities recently and that was the case from the outset Saturday. He picked off a clearing attempt by the Devils late in the first period for a shot on a partial breakaway that bounced off the shoulder of Hedberg (21 saves), but the chances didn’t yield goals until the second period.
For his first goal, Ovechkin made smart use of his linemates at even strength to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead.
Rather than carry the puck over the offensive blue line himself, Ovechkin left it in the neutral zone for Jason Chimera, who sped down the right-wing boards and sent the puck on to Ribeiro. The veteran playmaker drew four Devils toward him in the slot before passing to the left circle for a one-timer by Ovechkin.
As he celebrated with a scream and an exuberant, kneeling fist pump, the energy in the building and on the Capitals’ bench surged.
“That’s his whole game, emotion,” said goaltender Braden Holtby, who finished with 21 saves, including one on a penalty shot by the Devils’ Steve Bernier to preserve a 1-0 lead in the second period. “That brings the team up when you see that. That’s what we expect out of him being our captain is to score those goals.
“All the great captains always lead by example, and if he can go out there and bring that energy every night, then that’s what we need.”
After Ilya Kovalchuk made it 1-1 in the final minute of the second period, Ovechkin seized control in the third, starting with his second tally, this time on the rush.
As he made his way into the offensive zone down the right side, Ovechkin drifted toward the slot, forcing Volchenkov to step up against him. In a patented Ovechkin move, he shot through the defenseman’s feet to make it 2-1 just 83 seconds into the third.
“Coming down the wing on that one, to shoot between the legs again, that’s vintage Alex,” said Eric Fehr, who made it 3-1 less than three minutes later with a short-handed goal. “Hopefully we see a lot more than that.”
Hats rained down on the ice 15 minutes 13 seconds into the third when Ribeiro set Ovechkin up for the one-timer on the power play for his 11th career NHL hat trick, his first since Jan. 22, 2011 and his first at home since Feb. 7, 2010.
Back on the power play just less than two minutes later, Ovechkin sent a nifty slap-pass from the top of the left circle to the top of the crease for an easy redirection for Brouwer in front to make it 5-1. The explosive four-point showing came just a day after Ovechkin struggled to explain his lack of a finishing touch.
“I think the chances are there, just sometimes feel puck just don’t want to go in,” Ovechkin said. “Today is that kind of game almost every shot goes in, goes through so it’s kind of nice.”