- The first NHL game hosted at a service academy was a welcome distraction for the Capitals, whose superstars shined brightest.
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — As the brave and bundled bopped along to Bon Jovi and the Sugarhill Gang, passing an unexpected power outage at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium with an impromptu dance party illuminated by cell phone flashlights, the fever quickly reached the home bench. “Me and a couple of the fellas were jamming,” reported T.J. Oshie, which for him and fellow Washington Capitals winger Andrew Burakovsky translated into shaking their hips and twirling their fingers while Apache and Kemosabe jumped on it, jumped on it, jumped on it...
“When there’s a good vibe on our bench,” coach Barry Trotz said. “we’re usually a pretty good hockey team.”
Alongside generous helpings of hot cocoa and pageantry, good vibes were ladled throughout Saturday night’s 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the first-ever outdoor game hosted by a service academy. There was Oshie, cheeks smudged with eye black and fingernails painted turquoise by his two daughters, walking wide-eyed while bagpipes blared the Top Gun theme as a pregame escort. And John Carlson, who arrived in a custom navy-blue suit with gold shoulder stripes, a sailor cap short of Jonas Grumby, and then delivered one goal and two assists that vaulted him into second among NHL defensemen with 53 points.
And center Evgeny Kuznetsov, whose scoring bender continued with the same stat line as Carlson, deadpanning that above all else he would most cherish the league-issued swag bag of “nice clothes, hats, everything. That’s probably the best memory for me.”
Memories. Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock talked about those too. These events are special regardless of the outcome—for anyone howling about outdoor over-saturation, NBC happily obliged by cutting to Saturday Night Live with 4:12 left in the third period—but the good vibes generally go in the garbage after a loss. “We knew it was a big night,” Babcock said, reflecting on Washington’s wildly entertaining six-game series win over Toronto in last year’s first round. “They look at us and they still think we’re kids. And it looked like we were kids out there tonight.”
Certainly the Capitals deserve credit too. They forced Babcock to yank starter Frederik Andersen for the first time this season, striking five times on 25 shots. Both Maple Leafs goals were answered within the next minute, first from captain Alex Ovechkin on his league-leading 40th of the season, then from Cpt. Carlson in the second period, which pushed Washington's lead to 4-2. Goalie Braden Holtby ended a career-long six-game personal losing streak by stopping 27 shots, including several of what Wilson calls “those snazzy glove saves. It’s nice to see those back.”
As a group these Capitals looked like contenders again, justified in their current perch atop the Metro Division, at least for one blustery night. They were fast, efficient and powerful, not quite the runaway freight train that captured consecutive Presidents’ Trophies but hardly the outfit that had dropped four of its past seven. The road to Lord Stanley still passes through Pittsburgh—as Isabelle Khurshudyan of The Washington Post noted, perhaps Capitals owner Ted Leonsis should start lobbying to commissioner Gary Bettman host every playoff game outside—but as long as they are gathering memories from Annapolis, they should probably cork this formula too.
“I was thinking about that a little on the bench,” Wilson said. “You get that feeling. The team’s playing well, it’s a big stage, it’s good for the confidence. You know how your team can play when everyone’s going, when the lines are rolling over and you’re playing a good group game. It’s good for the crunch time down the stretch. You know you can play that way, and that should be expected. It was good to see.”
The supporting cast held its own: fourth-liners Chandler Stephenson and Jay Beagle adding assists on Carlson’s goal, recent trade acquisition Michal Kempny logging 19:26 on the blue line and rookie Jakub Vrana scoring for the first time since Dec. 14. Still, atop a rink crisscrossed by shadows, in a stadium that abruptly went dark for 15 minutes midway through the third period, the Capitals’ superstars shined brightest; Ovechkin finished two shy of 600 career goals but still hit 40 for the ninth time, a feat that only Wayne Gretzky, Marcel Dionne, Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy and Mike Gartner have accomplished. “Forty is nice,” he quipped, “but 50’s better.”
As always the spectacle matched the atmosphere. In lieu of an opening faceoff, the U.S. men’s curling team swept a stone that landed flush on the center dot. The gold medal-winning women’s hockey team was honored during the second intermission. Hundreds of midshipmen marched onto a stage built to resemble an aircraft carrier, past a replica fighter plane and a weather buoy with a fake seagull perched on top. “Beware of jet blasts, propellers and flying pucks,” a message on the boards declared.
For a time the biggest worry was the wind, the culprit that had cancelled practices and morning skates, forcing both teams to adjust in a hurry. Actual meteorologists measured the pregame gusts at only 16 miles per hour, blowing at the Capitals' backs as they built a 3-1 lead by the first intermission. That wasn't enough to affect the trajectory of flying pucks, Holtby said, though he did report some extra snow spraying through his mask when players stopped near the crease. “But it’s kind of fun,” he said, “having a different situation like that to challenge yourself.”
Only a goalie would call taking an ice bath to the face “fun.” Then again, this attitude reveals an open-mindedness with which Holtby has navigated—nautical pun not intended—his first season with a save percentage below .915 and a goals-against average that starts with a three. In a quiet moment after the game, he stood barefoot on the locker room carpet and reflected on a potentially pivotal night. He thought about the fireworks, and the two-plane floyover and the third-period dance party, and the mountain of extracurricular activities that always accompany an outdoor game. Then he floated a theory.
“It seems like there’s a lot of distractions,” Holtby said. “I think that helps our team get rid of the past, because you’re doing something different, your mind’s focused on different things, you’re not focused on the way things have gone the last little stretch. I think that helped us.
“It’s kind of strange. But this [win] came at a good time.”