So it did on Saturday afternoon as the Washington Capitals defeated the New Jersey Devils, 5-1. The big story, of course, was Alex Ovechkin recording his first hat trick of the season… first multi-goal game since March 23rd of last season… first hat trick since January 22, 2011… first hat trick at home since February 7, 2010…
Enough of the “first since” stuff, okay?
It was actually a case of the hockey gods rewarding Ovechkin for playing with an intensity over the last few games that was not there earlier in the year. He averaged more than five shots on goal per game over his previous nine games, but had only three goals to show for it. He matched that goal total in seven shots on goal on Saturday afternoon.
Ovechkin did it in familiar ways but by new means, beginning in the second period. His first goal started on a rush down the right side – not his customary left side – when he took a breakout pass from John Erskine. Then Ovechkin left the puck for Jason Chimera at the Devils’ blue line before drifting off to the left side in the New Jersey zone. Chimera laid the puck off to Mike Ribeiro, by which time Ovechkin set up camp in the left circle. He needed only to one-time the pass from Ribeiro past goalie Johan Hedberg, and the Caps had a 1-0 lead.
After Ilya Kovalchuk knotted the game late in the second period, Ovechkin grabbed the lead back for the Caps early in the third. Matt Hendricks sent a long cross-ice pass to Ovechkin, again heading down the right wing. After crossing the blue line he used defenseman Anton Volchenkov as a screen – how many times have we seen that on the other side – and rifled a wrist shot past Hedberg on the long side.
Less than three minutes later Eric Fehr scored a shorthanded goal, then it was Ovechkin’s turn again. On a power play, after missing a one-timer from the left wing circle, Ovechkin recovered his own shot to reset the offense. His cross-ice pass missed its mark, but John Carlson flagged it down at the blue line. Carlson to Nicklas Backstrom at the right wing wall, to Ribeiro at the goal line, out to Ovechkin at the edge of the left wing circle – bang… back of the net.
He was not done, though. On another Caps power play, the threat of his shot seemed to occupy Hedberg as a pass came to him in the left wing circle from Tomas Kundratek. This time, though, Ovechkin one-timed a pass to Troy Brouwer in the slot, Brouwer redirected the shot through Hedberg’s legs before Andy Greene could tie him up, and the Caps had their final 5-1 margin.
-- Going 2-for-3 on the power play means that the Caps are 12-for-24 (50.0 percent) going back to the third period of their game against Pittsburgh on February 3rd, covering eight-plus games. Whatever the Caps’ problems have been, the power play is not among them. They are now second in the league overall at 28.8 percent.
-- All of a sudden, Alex Ovechkin is in the top-15 in goals scored (tied for 14th, actually). Mike Ribeiro, who had two assists, is now tied for sixth in helpers and tied for ninth in points.
-- It was the best of $600,000 signings, it was the worst of $600,000 signings. Eric Fehr picked goalie Johan Hedberg’s pocket with hustle to score a wrap-around shorthanded goal to give the Caps some insurance in the third period. That makes four goals on just 18 shots in 14 games for Fehr. He is fifth on the team in goals scored and sixth in points now, despite averaging barely ten minutes a game in ice time.
-- As for that “worst” part, it might be a bit unfair to characterize Wojtek Wolski’s signing as “worst,” but he is really in a rut. He couldn’t finish a play with an open net in front of him, five feet away. The puck might have been bouncing on him, but like a baseball hitter who is in a slump and squeezing the bat too tightly, there was Wolski flipping the puck wide of the net. He is now without a point in his last seven games and is a minus-3.
-- If Ilya Kovalchuk is standing at center ice waiting to take a penalty shot, a goalie might be concerned (he was 11-for-14 in trick shots last season, if you need a comparison). If it is Patrik Elias staring down at the goalie, it will get the goalie’s attention (Elias was 6-for-12 in Gimmicks last season). Steve Bernier? He was 1-for-4 in shootouts over a seven year career coming into this season. It is not his forte. He skated in on his penalty shot, pretty much telegraphed going five-hole all the way, and all goalie Braden Holtby had to do was the ol’ knee-dip with his right pad, and that was that.
-- Yup… John Carlson was on ice for another goal against. Not really his problem, though. He had Andrei Loktionov covered on his side as Ilya Kovalchuk slipped into a void created when John Erskine slid over to cover…Loktionov. Huh? By the way, that scoring play – Kovalchuk from Loktionov and (Alexei) Ponikarovsky – is the season leader for letters used in a scoring line.
-- Ovechkin had quite the line on his score sheet. In addition to the three goals and the assist he had seven shots on goal (tied a season high), twn shot attempts, and five hits.
-- Ovechkin did not lead the team in hits, though. That would be Matt Hendricks, who had six in less than 13 minutes of ice time. And, he chipped in an assist to boot.
-- With his goal, Troy Brouwer has points in nine of his last 12 games and is 7-4-11 over that span.
-- Part of the charm of playing goaltender for the New Jersey Devils is not having to face a heavy workload on most nights. Johan Hedberg faced only 26 shots, but it was actually Braden Holtby who was the beneficiary of a lighter workload in this game. Holtby faced only 22 shots, seven in the third period as the Caps were abusing Hedberg at the other end.
-- The Caps were consistent in the circle. Twelve faceoffs won in the offensive end, 12 in the defensive end, and 12 in the neutral zone. All with winning percentages. The “offensive” guys – Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro – were a combined 7-for-12 in the offensive end. The “defensive” guys – Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle – were a combined 5-for-7 in the defensive zone. And there was Mathieu Perrault going 8-for-10 overall. Whodathunkit?
-- Speaking of faceoffs, Andrei Lokitonov was 0-for-10 for the Devils. Geez, you’d think a guy would win one by accident.
In the end, one could consider this the best game the Caps have played this year, given their opponent. It was the first time the Caps beat a team in the top-eight in the conference, and they did it after what might have been a disheartening loss to the same club in the third period less than 48 hours earlier. They got a big game from their big game player. They got solid goaltending. They had a crisp power play. They had an effective penalty kill. They now get a chance to take a bite out of a divisional opponent when Carolina visits on Tuesday before heading out on the road. Time to put a streak together.