RALEIGH, N.C. — Barry Trotz was getting antsy as he watched Alex Ovechkin continue to twirl in his skates. The Washington Capitals captain was staying on the ice for an unusually long shift of overtime — 1:31 of exhausting, open-ice hockey.
"He was out there for a while, and I'm on the bench going, 'Get off, because you're going to explode,' " the coach said.
"I thought he was dead tired at the end," Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly said. "And then it's just almost like whenever he decides to end it, he can just go do it."
When Ovechkin seemingly had had enough of overtime, he skated into the right faceoff circle and snapped the puck past goaltender Cam Ward to lift Washington to a 5-4 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, a wild victory that included the Capitals squandering a two-goal lead to trail the Hurricanes in the third period before an Ovechkin goal tied the score once more.
His 26th tally of the season finally decided it and, 41 games in — the season's midpoint — Ovechkin is once again on pace to reach the 50-goal plateau. In his 13th season and at age 32, it would be a remarkable feat, but Ovechkin isn't ready to get too far ahead of himself.
"Let's just take it game by game, and then we'll see what happens," he said. "You know, I'm not like 25 years old or 20 years old . . . trying to reach that kind of milestone.
"But if I did it, it would be pretty sick."
What was ultimately a happy ending for Washington nearly ended disastrously. After the Capitals took a 3-1 lead less than 30 minutes into the game, the Hurricanes steadily chipped away to tie the score and then take the lead in the third period. An Evgeny Kuznetsov cross-checking penalty gave Carolina a power play 9:44 into the second, and Victor Rask scored his second goal of the game to cut the Hurricanes' deficit to one through 40 minutes.
Elias Lindholm then tied it with a snap shot from the slot 5:40 into the third period. Less than two minutes later, a wacky sequence unfolded. Capitals defenseman Madison Bowey turned over the puck to Carolina's Sebastian Aho on a breakout and, as Aho attempted to skate up to the net, Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby made an aggressive move out of the crease to poke-check the puck away from Aho.
But it took a wild bounce behind the net and, with other Hurricanes players swarming, Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik attempted to use his stick to shield the net as Holtby scrambled back into position. But Orpik inadvertently knocked the puck into the net, and Teuvo Teravainen was credited with giving Carolina a 4-3 lead 7:04 into the third period. It seemed that would be the disappointing note the game ended on for Washington. But then 12:45 into the third period, Ovechkin tied it again by lifting a backhander, his least-favorite shot in his arsenal.
"Every day is something new for me," Ovechkin said.
"Responses like that is one of the main reasons why we're winning games right now," Holtby said. "You look at that game, and we probably didn't deserve to win, but I think the experience and probably the confidence that we were going to pull one out, I think that made the difference."
The overtime winner was Ovechkin's third of the season, and his 22 career overtime goals are an NHL record.
"He has a little bit of a — it's not really a stutter step, but he sort of pulls the puck, and it sort of locks that goalie into whatever position they're in," Trotz said. "And then he releases it, and they can't move. He's done that a couple of times. He's obviously got a fantastic release, but there's some deception in what he does.
"Obviously, he knows what he's doing."
The win completed a stretch coming out of the NHL's Christmas break in which Washington played three of its four games against Metropolitan Division opponents, earning five of a possible six points in those games. The Capitals stayed in sole possession of first place in the division with 53 points.
This was Washington's first game of the new year, so it was fitting that some of the team's newest faces starred early. After the Hurricanes took a quick 1-0 lead on a goal by Rask, who capitalized on a brutal turnover from Capitals defenseman John Carlson directly in front of Washington's net, Alex Chiasson and Devante Smith-Pelly scored to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead at the first intermission.
Chiasson and Smith-Pelly were unheralded offseason additions, and with Chiasson on pace for a career-high 14 goals and Smith-Pelly similarly poised to finish in double digits, they have provided inexpensive depth scoring. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov added a goal in the second period, seemingly positioning Washington to cruise to the end.
There was drama instead, and Ovechkin once again rose to the occasion.
"Everybody was tired," Ovechkin said with a shrug. "Everybody kind of miss wives. So, go home and enjoy."