ST. PAUL, Minn. — Alex Ovechkin’s head hung back as he stared upward, watching the replays of where Nicklas Backstrom was on the Washington Capitals’ goal. The hats had already been tossed onto the ice — and cleared — and the puck had been retrieved as a keepsake, but a coach’s challenge threatened to be the ultimate buzzkill.
The official skated out to the center of the ice and announced that Ovechkin’s third goal of the game counted. Backstrom was not deemed offsides and, on the bench, Ovechkin exhaled, flashed his signature wide smile and mouthed, “Boom.” Those hats that had been scattered onto the Xcel Energy Center ice weren’t wasted.
With his three goals in the second period, Ovechkin lifted the Capitals to a 4-3 win against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night. It was the 14th hat trick of his career and his first since Dec. 10, 2013. He also vaulted himself into the league’s goal-scoring lead, his third goal being his 34th of the season.
“My parents from Russia called me and said, ‘It’s time to get a hat trick,’ ” Ovechkin said. “They told me, ‘You didn’t score a hat trick in the last two years.’ It’s a good feeling.”
As Washington (40-9-4) has cruised this season, its strength has been balance, getting contributions throughout the lineup and not dependent on its top line. Thursday was a reminder that just because Ovechkin has more help, it doesn’t mean he can’t still single-handedly change a game.
The way his three goals were scored was fitting for a captain who can score with highlight-reel plays, but who also is willing to take his chances from point-blank range. On Thursday, he excelled in hockey’s “dirty” areas. Ovechkin has 18 even-strength goals on the year. He had 20 five-on-five goals last year in 81 games played while winning the goal-scoring title.
“We’ve been talking about going in front of the net a little bit more,” Backstrom said. “Obviously, it paid off today when we did that.”
Said Capitals Coach Barry Trotz: “He’s a big body; try to move him. He’s got terrific hand skills and he’s quick on pucks, so he was good that way.”
With the Capitals and Wild tied after 20 minutes, Washington started the second period on a power play. The Capitals’ top-ranked man-advantage has struggled recently, and this power play chance featured two Minnesota shots on goal and just one by Washington.
Before Tuesday’s game at Nashville, the man-advantage was on an 0-for-17 slump, and that was broken by a rare power-play empty-net goal. Through six games, the Capitals didn’t have a power-play goal that was scored on a goaltender.
After this latest disjointed power play chance ended, seemingly a momentum killer for the Capitals, Ovechkin took over. T.J. Oshie hit him in stride as he drove to the net, and Ovechkin scored his first goal from the left side of the crease. His second goal of the game came 3 minutes 7 seconds later, when he was finally able to solve the power play’s hex.
After Thomas Vanek was called for slashing, the Capitals’ power play looked like its old self, getting good movement in the offensive zone. Again on the left side of the crease, Ovechkin punched back the rebound from John Carlson’s shot. Ovechkin had 10 shots on goal in the game.
“The first one was kind of a lucky goal,” Ovechkin said. “I hit my shot, and then it goes right between his legs. I was kind of surprised. But a goal is a goal, so I’ll take it. The second one, finally scored on the PP.”
His third goal was scored in similar fashion, and it was arguably the ugliest. With traffic in front of the net, he swatted in a shot, and he had to glance over his shoulder to make sure it went in. The puck dribbled in, bouncing off the post and then off goaltender Devan Dubnyk’s skate and into the net.
The excitable star celebrated as he would any other goal, arms up and then around the necks of his teammates. When the replay confirmed the goal, his smile was even wider.
“When you get one, it’s nice,” Ovechkin said. “When you get two, it’s pretty cool. When you have three goals in one game, it’s kind of special.”