Ovechkin, whose final two goals were empty-netters, now has 20 goals on the season and 678 in his career to move within six of Teemu Selanne for 11th in NHL history. Ovechkin has five goals in Washington’s past three games — all wins — as the league-leading Capitals (19-4-5) head to California for their next three games.
It was Ovechkin’s 24th career hat trick in the regular season — he surpassed Jari Kurri for sole possession of 10th in NHL history — but it was his first with two empty-netters. Only four of his previous 23 hat tricks featured an empty-netter.
“Hat trick is a hat trick,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. It is always nice to put it in.”
Washington has fared well on the road, sitting at 11-2-1 after Saturday’s win. Its success includes a five-game, 10-day road trip in October that built the team’s confidence and shored up its still-new system. Its prowess was on display against the struggling Red Wings (7-19-3) on Saturday, just a night after the Capitals played a tough, rivalry game against Tampa Bay at home.
“Those can be dangerous games,” forward Tom Wilson said of Saturday’s matchup. “Every team in this league is pretty solid, and sometimes you just go through tough stretches where they are playing pretty desperate hockey. We were aware of that. We wanted to be solid. With two points tonight, they are the exact same. It doesn’t matter who you are playing.”
The Capitals struggled to maintain momentum against the Red Wings before second-period goals by T.J. Oshie and Ovechkin gave them a 2-1 lead they never surrendered. Wilson scored an insurance goal at 14:23 of the third before Luke Glendening answered for the Red Wings nine seconds later, but Ovechkin’s late goals made sure Detroit couldn’t complete its comeback.
“He’s obviously able to get out there and earn that situation,” Coach Todd Reirden said of Ovechkin’s empty-net goals. “He’s gotten better in that area, where we can play him in those situations. He deserves to be out there to help us protect a lead, and if he gets a chance, he knows where to put it.”
With the primary assist on Ovechkin’s first goal, Capitals defenseman John Carlson got his first point in four games. He also had the save of the night, knocking the puck away from Detroit’s Valtteri Filppula to deny a sure goal early in the third. Carlson has 37 points (eight goals, 29 assists) in 28 games. Evgeny Kuznetsov added three assists and has six points (one goal, five assists) in his past three games.
Ovechkin’s second-period goal was the team’s 100th of the season. It made the Capitals the second team in the past 12 years to score 100-plus goals (including shootout-deciding goals) before the start of December.
“I got to be honest with you: I got lucky,” Ovechkin said. “I should go to my backhand but decided to go behind the net and, you know, just then I go to the net and take a shot and I hit the goalie and it went in.”
The Capitals eventually found their stride, but they had another slow start. Reirden said his team didn’t play quickly enough in the opening 20 minutes. The Capitals fell into a 1-0 hole when Detroit’s Robby Fabbri beat backup goaltender Ilya Samsonov on the power play at 11:47. Samsonov ended up with 25 saves to improve to 6-2-1.
The Russian’s previous start was Nov. 15, a home loss to Montreal. The two-week break between games was not ideal, but Kuznetsov and Reirden praised the rookie.
“He’s getting better and better, but always feel bad when goalie doesn’t play for two weeks and we give them so many opportunities,” Kuznetsov said. “He played unbelievable today.”
Fabbri’s goal came on the second power-play chance for the Red Wings, who finished with four opportunities. Washington has taken 107 minor penalties through 28 games, second-most in the NHL. Reducing those chances has been a point of emphasis for Reirden of late. And while Washington’s penalty troubles persist, it can take solace in knowing its power play still reigns supreme.
Oshie, who has five points (one goal, four assists) in his past two games, tied the score at 1 at 2:19 of the second period when his one-timer on the power play beat Bernier. It was his 11th goal of the season. Jakub Vrana picked up the primary assist; he has five points (two goals, three assists) in his past four games. Vrana has 12 goals and 11 assists in 28 games after tallying 24 and 23 in 82 last season.
“Vrana just continues to get better and better,” Reirden said. “He is a guy that trains hard in the summer, continues to understand the importance of a two-way game. Proud of his year so far.”
Center Lars Eller initially handled top power-play duties in place of Nicklas Backstrom, who has missed the past five games with an upper-body injury, but it was Vrana who filled the role in the past two games. Backstrom skated Saturday morning but has not been cleared for contact. He is questionable for Tuesday’s game at San Jose.