New Jersey Devils goalie Johan Hedberg (1), from Sweden, blocks a shot by Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), from Russia, during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
WASHINGTON - After producing his first hat trick in more than two years, Alex Ovechkin wanted to give some credit to Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates.
"He's that kind of person," Ovechkin explained, "who gives me belief all the time."
So when Ovechkin texted Oates the other day, lamenting that it seemed as though the puck simply did not want to go in the net, the first-time NHL head coach replied: "It's going to come."
Sure did Saturday, over and over again. Ovechkin scored three goals in a game for the first time since Jan. 22, 2011, leading the last-place Capitals to a much-needed 5-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils.
"For a player, if you feel that kind of trust from a coach, coaching staff, it's very important," Ovechkin said after his 11th career hat trick. "And teammates see it."
He's been something less than the player who stormed into the NHL by averaging 53 goals over his first five seasons, with two MVP awards. That average dipped to 35 goals the past two seasons, and he hadn't even scored two goals in a game since a loss to Winnipeg on March 23, 2012. He entered Saturday with only five goals this season—going without a point in half of Washington's previous 16 games, including Thursday's 3-2 loss to New Jersey—but broke out in a big way.
"All I can tell you is that we have to find a way to slow him down and stop him," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said, "and we didn't do that."
Not even close.
"You know what kind of player he is," Devils goalie Johan Hedberg said. "You let him execute, he's going to hurt you."
Alternating between his customary left wing and the right side, precisely how Oates wants, Ovechkin put Washington ahead 1-0 by sending a one-timer past Hedberg from the left circle off a pass from Mike Ribeiro, who finished with two assists.
Ovechkin celebrated by dropping to a knee and pumping his right fist before spinning and skating over to the boards to slam against the glass with both gloves.
"You want to see your go-to guy get some," Oates said. "Him scoring first for us gets the place going. The fans love him. The place is rocking. It obviously helps the team."
Ilya Kovalchuk's goal with 37.5 seconds left in the second period tied the game for New Jersey, but Ovechkin put Washington ahead to stay 1:23 into the third on a rush. This one was a "rocket," as Hedberg put it, from the right circle, through the legs of Devils defenceman Anton Volchenkov.
Ovechkin's third goal was on a power play, with a little under 5 minutes remaining. He also added an assist later on Troy Brouwer's power play goal, for good measure.
Yes, and as Ovechkin goes, so go the Capitals.
Washington came into the game with an 0-7-1 record against the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference, and 5-10-1 overall, good for only 11 standings points, the fewest in the 30-team league.
"It is good to see him bust out. We need him to score to be successful, we all know that," Brouwer said. "We can't have him just being static and waiting for other guys to feed him the puck. He was in there, working hard, creating his own chances."
The Capitals got contributions elsewhere, too, of course, as though pushed to play better by seeing their captain excel.
Eric Fehr netted Washington's first short-handed goal of the season—and his fourth score in five games after getting zero in his first nine games—and goalie Braden Holtby made 21 saves.
Holtby also stopped Steve Bernier's penalty shot in the second period. During a power play, Bernier broke behind the defence after a stop in play at the other end, and Washington's Tom Poti dragged him to the ice. But Bernier's penalty shot went off the edge of Holtby's right pad, prompting chants of "Holt-beee! Holt-beee!" from the stands.
Ovechkin, of course, earned plenty of cheers, too, from red-wearing spectators thrilled to see him show off the skills and energy like the "Alex the Great" of old.
"That's his whole game—emotion. Brings the team up when you see that," Holtby said. "That's what we expect of him, being our captain, is to score those goals."
Notes: The Devils have lost three of their last four games, including one via shootout. ... Capitals D Mike Green sat out his third game in a row with a lower-body injury. ... Hedberg was making his fifth start this season and first in a week. Martin Brodeur got a day off.