COLUMBUS, Ohio — Once the strangeness of a 5-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets had settled, while his Washington Capitals teammates nursed their nicks and iced their bruises, forward Alex Ovechkin emerged from the visiting training room, settled gingerly into his locker stall and exhaled a deep breath. For 43 minutes, Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena had become about dropped gloves, spilled blood and penalty boxes stuffed to maximum capacity. Now, thanks to the calm summoned by their captain, the Capitals could finally begin to rest.
“Yeah, it was physical,” Ovechkin said. “Little bit like playoff game.”
Yet even the postseason, all but guaranteed for Washington after a second straight victory and an unlikely destination for Columbus even before its seventh straight loss, would likely fail to match the chaos of eight fighting majors, 80 total penalty minutes, five roughing minors, two misconducts, one penalty shot and one critically timed delay of game penalty that left the Capitals howling in anger.
But Coach Barry Trotz had also preached camaraderie under duress, so he left happy with how the Capitals handled the Blue Jackets, buried in the standings and scrapping to end their slide, or perhaps just for the sake of scrapping. When Ovechkin came through, a two-goal lead had once more been whittled in half. The Capitals needed settling. And for the second straight game, their captain climbed through the ropes and brought, instead of more punches, the knockout blow.
“I’m very pleased the guys stuck up for each other,” Trotz said. “A little bit of a chippy game, probably unnecessarily so. Some strange things happened today, so we dealt with it and got the win. So that was good.”
On the power play thanks to Columbus forward Scott Hartnell’s double-minor, issued for following forward Eric Fehr onto Washington’s bench and slugging him in the cheek, Ovechkin had already blasted one attempt wide, but when the puck cycled around to center Nicklas Backstrom, he gained another chance. Backstrom’s slick feed missed the mark, catching the captain short-armed, but Ovechkin readjusted, hunched over and shoveled in the decisive one-timer past goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
“That’s him,” Backstrom said, as if no more explanation was needed.
Ovechkin’s second straight multi-goal game marshalled the necessary boost in one of Washington’s wackiest games this season. It nullified Hartnell’s power-play goal in the third period, the last meaningful gasp for the Blue Jackets even after forward Marcus Johansson received a delay of game penalty with 2 minutes 16 seconds left. The penalty came when the Swede snapped his stick before a faceoff instead of asking the referee to test if it was cracked.
“Hopefully we can learn from that,” Trotz said. “Using your intelligence in the game. . . . We didn’t communicate to him, and therefore he reacted to a delay of game call.”
It proved inconsequential when goaltender Braden Holtby made the final three of his 27 saves and Johansson pounced from the box to deliver an empty-netter with 8.7 seconds left, one last two-goal lead that held up.
Down 2-0 after net-front goals in the first period from Ovechkin on a deflection and Fehr on a rebound, the Blue Jackets briefly found life early in the second. After Bobrovsky denied forward Troy Brouwer on a breakaway and turned the rush toward the opposite zone, Columbus defenseman David Savard blistered a shot that skipped off Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, like a rock on a pond, and fooled Holtby, who had dropped onto his knees while the puck hissed high.
Washington answered 48 seconds later, when forward Jason Chimera dropped his initial shot on the doorstep, free for forward Tom Wilson to sweep into the net. But once the ice had been scraped of blood and hockey had resumed from a brief wrestling match between Jared Boll and Wilson, after Holtby denied Hartnell on a penalty shot awarded after defenseman Mike Green tripped Hartnell on a breakaway, Hartnell found his revenge, deflecting a deep blast from defenseman Jack Johnson that pulled Columbus within one goal, 3-2.
“I don’t know what we thought at the first intermission, but maybe we got a little too cocky,” Chimera said. “I thought that was our best first period of the year in terms of checking and getting pucks deep. The second period, you think a team’s down and out, they’re never down and out. They’re going to keep coming. They sure came at us. We can’t sit back.”
The scrappiness never died down during the third period, and Nationwide Arena thundered when Johansson entered the box, charged with the 20th and final penalty of the game. The Blue Jackets pestered Holtby but never broke him. Soon, after a night spent rushing to defend one another, the Capitals could gather around Holtby, retreat into the dressing room, treat their wounds and fly home.