WASHINGTON, D.C.—It started out with the makings of a blow out, and ended up transforming into one before the night was through. Jumpstarted by Alexander Ovechkin’s 29th goal of the season just 49 seconds into the game, the Washington Capitals (29-12-6, 64 points) routed the Toronto Maple Leafs (16-24-9, 41 points) Friday night by a score of 6-1 in a sold-out Verizon Center, on a career night for the Russian captain.
Ovechkin scored one goal and added four helpers, while Mike Knuble tapped in a pair and Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann and Tom Poti also contributed goals for the Capitals, who benefitted from a stellar night in net by Jose Theodore. The netminder allowed only one goal on 29 shots, and often bailed out his team after defensive miscues.
It only took Ovechkin 49 seconds to make his mark on the game, taking a feed from frequent conspirator Nicklas Backstrom as he crossed the blue line and then wristing a laser shot past Toronto goaltender Vesa Toskala’s glove hand on the first shot of the game.
Ovechkin earned his second point late in the period when he assisted on Fehr’s strike that extended Washington’s lead to 2-0. The Russian striker hopped on the ice when Theodore was pulled for an extra attacker during a delayed penalty on Toronto and positioned himself on the blue line. Jason Chimera snared a loose puck behind the net and swung it up to Ovechkin, whose slap shot was weakened when his stick broke.
Unfortunately for the Maple Leafs, however, Alexei Ponikarovsky’s attempt to block the slow shot instead deflected the puck right to Fehr in front of Toronto’s net and the bulky winger redirected the biscuit around Toskala’s right leg and into the net.
With his first assist Ovechkin joined an elite club of players with at least 15 goals and 30 assists so far this season, along with teammate Backstrom, Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin and Chicago’s Patrick Kane.
Perhaps inspired by Backstrom, Ovechkin spent the second period as a set-up man, earning primary assists on two net-crashing goals scored by Knuble early in the frame.
Neither goal was pretty, and both were lucky, but as Knuble knows, they count the same as any other. “That’s my game and I can’t really change it,” said an unapologetic Knuble after the game. “A lot of nights pucks will bounce by you and go the other way, you can’t get your bounce, some nights they drop right in front of you.”
On the veteran’s first goal he was a beneficiary of Toronto overplaying an Ovechkin shot. As the Caps broke into the Leafs zone with an odd-man rush and Ovechkin, after fumbling the initial pass from Backstrom, slid the puck to Knuble crashing the net. Initially the puck hit Knuble’s skate and sat in the crease, where the winger recovered and tapped it in for an easy goal while Toskala was out of position.
“There were guys all over the net, I had one side…Alex [Ovechkin] was coming in down the other side, probably Nick [Backstrom] was coming down the middle, so that puck wasn’t going to get out of the crease. One way or another it was going to get into the net,” said Knuble.
Three minutes later the gritty veteran found the back of the net again on a play nearly identical to his first goal, other than the fact that the Caps were on the power play. A fancy give-and-go between Ovechkin and Alexander Semin sucked Toskala away from the net, and though Toronto defenseman Ian White’s impressively cleared Ovechkin’s initial shot off the goal line, Knuble was standing there for the easy put-in increase Washington’s lead to four.
Though Theodore held strong against the Toronto attack, eventually he was beaten on the Maple Leafs’ fourth power play of the game. Defenseman Tomas Kaberle made a quick pass to teammate Phil Kessel along the blue line to shake his defender before one-timing the return feed over Theodore’s glove hand with less than two minutes left in the second period.
Toronto nearly cut their deficit by another before the period ended, but a Matt Stajan goal with 35 seconds left was nullified by a Ponikarovky high stick that took Mike Green out of the play.
Perhaps sensing their leading margin was slimmer than the scoreboard indicated, the Capitals continued to press on offense in the third period and made the Maple Leafs pay when Lee Stempniak visited the penalty box after tripping Green during a breakout.
Backstrom won a faceoff outside the Leafs’ zone and Green slid the puck to Ovechkin at the far blue line. Washington’s captain crossed the line and then pulled up, allowing Fleischmann to position himself in the low slot to redirect Ovechkin’s hard wrist shot over Toskala and into the top of the net.
Midway through the third period the Capitals began to exhibit signs of a troubling trend left over from years past: taking unnecessary penalties late in the game. Green started the parade to the penalty box with a slash deep in Washington’s zone with 8:52 gone in the third.
The Capitals killed the penalty, and on an ensuing fast break once Green left the box Washington scored its sixth goal of the game. Alexander Semin took a pass from Green on the right flank and barreled in the offensive zone before peeling off to the boards. Seeing defenseman Tom Poti sneaking into the play, Semin dished the puck and Poti wristed it over Toskala’s left shoulder as teammate Brendan Morrison provided a screen.
Ron Wilson, former head coach of the Capitals and current Head Coach of the Maple Leafs, thought his team was simply unprepared for Washington’s offensive onslaught. Always one with words, Wilson was blunt in assessing his team’s play: “If you play the game with a deer in the headlights kind of mold, then you’re probably going to get run over by the car.”
With the outcome decided late in the third period, Toronto finally began to play in the pugilistic style with which they have become adjusted to this season. After Colton Orr cross-checked Green in the chin in front of the Capitals net Shaone Morrisonn jumped to his teammate’s defense, dropping gloves with one of the most feared enforcers in the NHL. Minutes later Chimera took offense to a high hit by Jay Rosehill on Caps rookie John Carlson and Chimera and Rosehill exchanged blows near the Toronto bench.
Both Morrisonn and Chimera earned additional instigator penalties for their dustups and may receive supplemental discipline from the league, but Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau praised his players’ willingness to defend their teammates.
“When teams take liberties, we come in as a group,” said Boudreau. “I’m all for protecting our guys. We don’t start a lot of this stuff, but we’re there. It doesn’t matter how tough the guy is, we want to protect our guys.”
In between the Morrisonn and Chimera fights the Capitals took two additional penalties, a bench minor for too many men on the ice and a tripping infraction committed by Boyd Gordon, that, along with the minor penalty assessed to Chimera for instigating, gave Toronto an extended power play to close the game.
Repeated quality scoring attempts by Toronto’s Kessel and Niklas Hagman were all turned away by Theodore to preserve the 6-1 victory in what Boudreau characterized as a character-builder for the goalie, who has spent much of the past two months as a back-up to either Semyon Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth.
Reflecting on the win, Boudreau struggled for words to praise Ovechkin after his one-goal, four-assist performance. “In the first period when he scored that goal, I thought ‘he looks like he’s on tonight’…you never expect five points, of course, but it was pretty good.”
Knuble was more generous with his praise: “You know, he’s the best player in the world…to play with a guy like that in his prime, it’s a gift, it’s a privilege to play with him,” gushed Knuble, who won a Stanley Cup in 1998 as a member of the Detroit Red Wings as part of a lineup that included four players currently in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Neither Ovechkin nor Knuble will have much time to celebrate Friday night’s win, however, as the Philadelphia Flyers visit the Capitals on Sunday for a matinee game in the Verizon Center. After an early surge the Flyers astonishingly sit outside of a playoff spot in the weak Eastern Conference, but nonetheless will come out strong against the Caps in a burgeoning rivalry between the two young teams.
-Fehr’s goal was his 12th of the season in his 36th game, matching a career high in goals registered over 61 games last season.
-Jason Chimera, picked up from the Columbus Blue Jackets almost three weeks ago, now has points in four straight games for the Caps (2-4-6) as well as several fights to his credit.
-Ovechkin’s four assists were a career high, and Friday night was his fourth career five-point game.
-Washington now has more games with six or more goals scored this season (8 times) than did they all of last season (6 times).’
-Knuble’s two-goal game was the Capitals’ 33rd two-goal game of the season, ten more than the next closest team coming in to Friday’s game. Amazingly, no Capitals player has yet to register a hat trick this season.
-Entering Friday’s game the Capitals were second in the NHL in power play percentage, at 24.3%, while Toronto’s 68.9% penalty kill was last in the league. The Caps went 2-for-5 with the man advantage while the Maple Leafs were only 1-for-8 on the powerplay.