The Washington Capitals were already chugging along rather well Tuesday night when their opponents gave them a reason to rally around each other and elevate their game.
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jay McClement shoved a vulnerable Nicklas Backstrom into the boards with 4 minutes 36 seconds remaining in the first period, prompting Alex Ovechkin to fly into the scene, pounce on the blueliner and ignite a fracas near the visitors’ bench.
Backstrom was unharmed, but when Ovechkin wound up as the lone man in the penalty box the Verizon Center crowd became incensed, funneling its ire at the referees. The energy in the building swelled, the home team killed off the minor penalty, and from there the Capitals never looked back.
“That’s a penalty that we’ll kill all day. That’s your captain sticking up for one of the best players on our team,” defenseman Jack Hillen said. “I think anybody on our team would have done that and he did a great job. That’s why he’s our captain and that definitely gave us some more momentum.”
The Capitals had already peppered a sluggish Toronto at the start, the Maple Leafs looking every bit of a team playing on back-to-back nights. Even when Hillen’s point shot deflected off Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri and found its way into the net for a 1-0 Washington lead with 14:27 gone in the first, there seemed to be little to amplify the action on the ice.
McClement’s hit offered the catalyst. As Backstrom tried to maintain possession of the puck as he skated toward the boards, the Toronto defenseman shoved him from behind sending the Capitals’ top center into the boards head first.
“I knew he was right behind me, but I don’t think he did it on purpose,” Backstrom said. “I don’t think so, if I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t know, maybe two minutes or something – at least.”
Ovechkin immediately confronted McClement and soon every player on the ice from both sides joined the fray.
The Capitals star winger, who would eventually record his NHL-leading 28th goal of the season and 18th in the past 16 games, played down his actions.
“I just step up for my teammate and I think everybody would do the same if it were happening to me or [Matt Hendricks]. Everybody going to do the same thing.”
As Ovechkin made his way to the penalty box, the once-dormant crowd saluted his defense of a teammate with thunderous chant of “Ovi! Ovi!” Those energetic cheers quickly turned to ire when only one penalty was put on the scoreboard. Many in the crowd of 18,506 believed McClement deserved a minor as well.
Each time Washington’s penalty killers cleared the puck out of the zone or thwarted a Maple Leafs scoring chance the volume rose. Upon thwarting Ovechkin’s minor, the Capitals received a standing ovation.
“You want to stick together. And there’s times where, obviously, you don’t want to take penalties to do it. But it’s great that we killed that penalty,” Coach Adam Oates said. “Because it is important, obviously, we got to protect our guys.”
And suddenly a sleepy first period pulsed, the Capitals seizing a critical contest between teams jockeying for positioning in the Eastern Conference race. Before the first came to a close, Jason Chimera made a final statement about the hit against Backstrom by compelling McClement to fight to answer for the hit on Backstrom. The bout wasn’t all that eventful, but it whipped the crowd into an even greater frenzy.
“Chimmer did a good job jumping in and showing that you can’t touch our best players,” Ovechkin said. “So I think it shows the character of the team and it shows that everybody cares about each other.”
Washington carried its one-goal lead into the intermission and at the start of the second Ovechkin played like a man possessed. In the opening minute a wicked shot clanked off the left post and on his next shift Ovechkin juked around Jake Gardiner, passing the puck to himself through the defenseman’s skates, deked and created a marvelous scoring chance. Toronto netminder Ben Scrivens (32 saves) stopped the shot, but winger Nikolai Kulemin hooked Ovechkin as he worked his way toward the net and put the NHL’s top power play to work.
Washington didn’t convert on the man-advantage but maintained possession in the offensive zone as it expired. Five seconds after the penalty passed, Martin Erat tipped an Ovechkin pass to put Washington up 2-0.
The Capitals continued to push and with 7:55 elapsed in the middle stanza took a 3-0 lead. On a two-on-one, John Carlson fed the puck across to Troy Brouwer, who deftly cut across the front of the net and slipped the puck between Scrivens’s legs for his 17th goal of the season.
After helping turn the game in Washington’s favor with his defense of Backstrom and continuing to fuel its dynamic play, Ovechkin got on the scoreboard himself. With one of his patented one-timers from the left circle on the power play, Ovechkin put the Capitals up 4-0 with just over six minutes remaining in the second.
Toronto got on the board early in the third but at that point there was little chance to prevent Washington from rolling forward. Marcus Johansson added a fifth goal for good measure near the midway point of the third.
On this night the win wasn’t about how many goals the Capitals filled the net with, though, but rather a display from Ovechkin as to how members of this team will stand up for each other.
“It shows team toughness. It shows team toughness, and that’s what a leader’s all about, too. I think Alex brings that,” Steve Oleksy said. “He’s not afraid to stand in there for his teammates, no matter who it is. And I think he showed that, and I think our team feeds off stuff like that.”