Here came the hats, fluttering onto the ice, confetti for the soft-spoken center who, as the celebration roared, barely cracked a smile. Verizon Center pulsed Saturday night as hard as it has at any point during this Washington Capitals season. Workers shoveled the hats into garbage bins. And near center ice, teammates mobbed and hugged Nicklas Backstrom, for whom one muted fist pump felt like enough.
Coach Barry Trotz earlier this week had called Backstrom “sneaky dirty,” an endearing reference both to the Swede’s proclivity for physicality and his less-surprising craftiness, often used for circus feeds between legs and for slipping pucks through tight windows. But Trotz couldn’t have known his compliment would foreshadow Backstrom’s star turn in Washington’s 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, when the center’s first regular season hat trick of his career came with all the craftiness Trotz finds so endearing.
“He was outstanding,” Trotz said. “When we needed something to happen, he made it happen today. That’s what Nicky seems to do.”
In boosting Washington to its second victory in five nights against the Atlantic Division leaders, Backstrom scored twice during a pivotal second period, then once more less than three minutes into the third. The first goal came when he surprised goaltender Ben Bishop by flinging a backhand across his body. The second came when he retrieved a puck from outside the cage, brought it back into the crease and jammed it through Bishop’s glove. Then, early in the third period, he traded guile for power and beat Bishop by slinging a wrist shot on the rush.
“Great feeling, I would say,” Backstrom said inside the locker room, where teammates had surprised him by piling the hats inside his stall. “Doesn’t happen a lot.”
Yet as forward Alex Ovechkin tore along the boards to hug his longtime teammate and the hats kept raining down, the Capitals could hardly rest easy. With less than five minutes left, Lightning forward Tyler Johnson beat Braden Holtby from close range, putting the Lightning on the scoreboard.
After Bishop was pulled for an extra skater, Matt Carle brought Tampa Bay within one goal. But with a collapse threatening, forward Eric Fehr scored an empty-netter that gave the Capitals just their sixth win in 15 games at Verizon Center, leaving them free to celebrate Backstrom’s big night without worry.
“I aged. I aged a lot,” Trotz said of the final five minutes, before pointing to his white sideburns. “I had a little bit of black right here. It’s gone.”
Any frayed nerves would heal thanks to Backstrom’s offensive eruption, which followed a critical two minutes of five-on-three penalty killing and a sluggish offensive first period, when the Capitals failed to score on three power plays.
Instead, the Lightning owned the first period’s best scoring chance, celebrating a goal only to have it waved off. Upon seeing the replay, the crowd moaned. The officials huddled near the penalty box and reviewed the sequence, when Steven Stamkos blasted a goal into an open net as Holtby, defenseman Brooks Orpik and Tampa Bay forward Ryan Callahan piled atop each other outside the crease.
Eventually, the officials ruled Callahan had interfered with Holtby and negated the score, erasing the Lightning’s first shot on net. The visitors, who came in with the NHL’s highest-scoring offense (3.4 goals per game), went exactly 15 minutes before putting a puck onto Holtby.
Before long, though, his workload increased, creating a goaltending battle reminiscent of Tuesday night, when Holtby beat Bishop in a 5-3 decision, Washington’s third straight win at the time. Less than seven minutes into Saturday’s second period, Mike Green hooked Nikita Kucherov on the rush and Ovechkin was docked for roughing, so Tampa Bay received two minutes of five-on-three play.
The stage ceded to Holtby. Just outside the crease, Callahan poked his stick between Orpik’s legs and flicked the puck toward the net. But Holtby twisted his torso and, perched off-balance on his toes, hooked his stick around the goal line, corralling the puck before it crossed.
Verizon Center thundered. Chants of “Holt-by, Holt-by,” grew even louder when Green and Ovechkin were released from the box, the penalties successfully killed. Soon Backstrom corralled a rebound, pivoted toward the net and backhanded his first goal of the night, a crafty move that caught Bishop by surprise.
Two more goals — and the shower of hats — were still to come, capping a career night Backstrom never saw coming, one he would celebrate in typical deadpan fashion.
“I was actually a little grumpy when I woke up after my nap,” he said. “I don’t know. Just one of those days you got to put the puck through the net, I guess.”