Thursday night’s loss to the New Jersey Devils was perhaps the low point of the shortened season for the Washington Capitals, as the team was in danger of completely falling out of the playoff chase with many more losses. But following the disastrous third period Thursday, the Capitals put perhaps their most complete third period of the season in a 5-1 rout of New Jersey Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center.
Alex Ovechkin scored his first hat trick in over two years – and his first at home in over three – as Washington shrugged off an Ilya Kovalchuk equalizing tally late in the second to roll past the Devils with their first four-goal period of the season.
“Sometimes I feel that the puck doesn’t want to go in,” Ovechkin said afterwards. “Today, it was that kind of game hat almost every shot goes in, or at least it feels like that. It’s kind of nice.”
With the noon start, both teams started off at a sluggish pace, with the best chance for Washington being Wojtek Wolski’s miss of a wide-open net in the first, as the forward shot a bouncing puck across the goal line with a wide open cage.
But just over five minutes into the second, Ovechkin made his presence known, shaking off a hit along the wall and then moving in to the Devils zone and blasting a one-time pass from Mike Riberio past Devils netminder Johan Hedberg for the first goal of the game.
After the goal, Washington, fresh off losing a 2-1 lead late in the game Thursday, played tentative in the rest of the frame, allowing a penalty shot to Steve Bernier which Holtby stopped. Although the Caps looked like they might escape with the lead into the break, Kovalchuk picked up a puck that came loose and wristed it past Braden Holtby with just :37.5 left in the second.
Unlike Thursday, in the intermission, Washington regrouped and were able to record just their sixth win of the season.
“We stayed with it,” forward Mike Ribeiro said. “We didn’t drop our arms or quit… when they scored that goal at the end of the period. We just came out and did the same thing we had to do and stuck with the game plan. Most of the time, the teams that stick with the game plan the longest will win games.”
Just 83 seconds into the final frame, Ovechkin took a stretch pass from Matt Hendricks, and using Anton Volchenkov as a screen, wristed a shot from the top of the circle through the defenseman’s skates and past Hedberg.
Things seemingly turned ominous when John Erskine was whistled for a delay-of-game penalty less than a minute after the goal. Unlike Thursday where the game came unraveled on the penalty kill, though, Washington used it to their advantage as Eric Fehr notched the team’s first shorthanded goal of the season.
With Hedberg going behind the net to play the puck, Fehr charged in and left the goaltender in no-man’s land. Fehr collected the biscuit and scored a wrap-around insurance goal, giving the Caps an important boost in both confidence and on the scoreboard.
For Fehr, it was his fourth goal in his 14th game of the year, a bargain for the $600,000 contract he signed in January after scoring just two with Winnipeg last season.
“Obviously, a two-goal cushion is big,” Oates said. “The last few weeks [Fehr] seemed to have a lot of jump and has been making good decisions and getting more involved in the game, and I have been trying to find more minutes for him.”
“It was a very big goal for him, and give us much breathing room,” Ovechkin said.
Armed with the lead, Ovechkin capped his first hat trick at home since Feb. 7, 2010 with a one-tier off a Riberio feed for the hat trick.
For good measure, Ovechkin added an assist on Troy Brouwer’s goal with just 2:51 left in regulation, capping the 5-1 win and giving both Ovechkin and Brouwer the team lead with eight goals on the year.
“I kind of figured he was going to shoot it because he’s got a hot hand tonight, but he’s a good player and sees the ice well and you’ve got to be ready,” Brouwer said.
Afterwards, the Caps’ captain talked about how well his line played.
“I think our line has great chemistry right now,” Ovechkin said. “[Jason Chimera] knows exactly what to do, I know exactly where Chimmer’s going to be, and we talk before the games, between periods, especially Ribs, a guy who controls the puck is in between us. We win the game, our line finally gets plus, it’s kind of cool.”
While Saturday’s game wasn’t a must-win for Washington, it was pretty close, as the Capitals were in danger of falling 8 points out of the Southeast chase by night’s end.
But instead of folding the tents after Thursday’s crushing setback, the Capitals came back with a complete effort, and will get another big challenge Tuesday when division rival Carolina comes to town as Washington looks to chip away at the gap between them and the playoff pack.
With the effort Saturday, Hendricks said he hopes the team gets on track.
“We came out and played our game,” he said. “We played a full 60 minutes. We talked earlier about being 100 percent committed to the system not only in the defensive zone, but in the neutral zone and the offensive zone. We played a full game.
“That’s something we need to build on.”