WASHINGTON -- Earlier in the day on Tuesday, Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich said his team would need someone to step up in the absence of their top three players, including captain Alex Ovechkin. Laich mentioned Mathieu Perreault as someone who would see increased playing time and have a chance to be part of the effort to make up for the loss of those key players.
Would he ever.
Perreault collected his first NHL hat track, including the game-winning goal in the third period, to help the shorthanded Capitals beat the Boston Bruins 5-3 at Verizon Center.
"This is the best feeling ever," Perreault said. "It's awesome. You can't describe that feeling. This what you dream of. You dream to play in the NHL, but when you get a hat trick it is even better. It was just a great feeling."
With Nicklas Backstrom also missing for the Capitals, Perreault centered the team's top line with Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansson on his wings. Perreault gave Washington a 4-3 lead 7:18 into the final period when Roman Hamrlik's shot from the top of the zone ended up at his feet and he snapped it past Boston goalie Tuukka Rask for his seventh goal of the season.
Perreault scored the game-winner just after coming out of the penalty box for high-sticking Bruins captain Zdeno Chara.
"Yeah, a little bit," Perreault said when asked if he was angry about being in the box. "I barely touched him. He's seven-foot tall and I'm 5-8. I was kind of pissed, but I came back and I got that bounce right to me and I put it in the net."
Dennis Wideman added an empty-netter with 27 seconds left to seal a victory against the defending Stanley Cup champions and the second-best team in the Eastern Conference as the All-Star break approaches. The Capitals will go into the break in first place in the Southeast Division -- Washington is tied with the Florida Panthers at 55 points in 48 games, but the Capitals have six more non-shootout victories to claim the tiebreaker.
"You see where we are in the standings and every two points is huge," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. "Boston's a good team. It's a measuring stick for everybody. ... Boston always prides themselves on working hard and they do work, but we matched it and came up with the victory."
The Capitals were without Ovechkin who served the first of a three-game suspension for a hit on Pittsburgh's Zbynek Michalek at Consol Energy Center on Sunday. Washington is now 10-6-2 in games without Ovechkin since he joined the club at the start of the 2005-06 season.
More impressively, the Capitals are 10-3-1 in the past three seasons without Ovechkin, and they've scored at least four goals in eight of those contests. During the 2009-10 campaign, it was Tomas Fleischmann who moved to the top line and became the team's go-to scorer sans Ovechkin. On Tuesday night, that guy was Perreault.
"I think we have a really good team, even without [Ovechkin]," Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. "We all looked at the roster at the beginning of the season and said this is a good lineup up and down, top to bottom. Obviously [Ovechkin] is our No. 1 guy, but with [Perreault] stepping up and that's the type of player he is -- he is a first-line, second-line type of guy."
Perreault had spent parts of each of the two previous seasons in Washington, but flashes of brilliance were often overshadowed by long droughts. He has spent the entire 2011-12 season with the Capitals, but he has been a healthy scratch in a little more than one-third of the games.
He now has seven goals in 30 games, which matches the number he had in 35 NHL games last year. Perreault also earned a towel full of shaving cream in the face from Ovechkin for his efforts.
"I felt really good today," Perreault said. "As I get more ice time, I feel more comfortable and get more confidence. It is a big part of my game. When I get more ice time, I'm a lot more comfortable. It was same way in Hershey -- my first two years I wasn't playing that much, but once I get more ice time this was when I felt better."
Boston led 1-0 after 20 minutes, but the Capitals scored twice in 41 seconds early in a wild second period to grab the lead. Rookie Cody Eakin put a shot on net that Rask fumbled before it trickled across the goal line at 2:14. It was Eakin's fourth goal of the season.
Perreault then made it 2-1 at 2:55. Perreault carried the puck into the offensive zone before sending it to the right wing and Alexander Semin, whose no-look return pass found Perrault from between the hash marks for a one-timer past Rask for his first of two tallies in the period.
Tyler Seguin tied the contest at 2-2 with a pretty goal. Bruins defenseman Steven Kampfer got a piece of John Carlson's outlet pass and Seguin collected it before snapping a backhanded shot under the crossbar at 12:21, just before falling into the crease. Seguin now leads Boston with 19 goals.
Perreault put Washington back in front a little more than two minutes later. Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuk tried to send a backhanded pass across the ice in the neutral zone, but it hit Perreault, who went in alone and scored on the breakaway.
Brad Marchand leveled the score late in the period with Perreault in the penalty box. Washington goaltender Tomas Vokoun made a nice save on Patrice Bergeron and then another on a long rebound from Dennis Seidenberg, but Marchand was near the left post to pounce on the second rebound for his 17th tally of the season.
Rich Peverley was credited with putting the Bruins on the board with the lone goal of the first period. Peverley tried to center the puck from the left corner, but it deflected off Washington defenseman Karl Alzner's stick and into the net at 17:46 of the period. Alzner was on his stomach and reaching out with his stick.
It was Peverley's eighth goal of the season. He began the night on Boston's top line as a replacement for Nathan Horton, who missed the game because of a concussion.
The Bruins will be on top of the Northeast Division and in second place in the East at the All-Star break. They visited the White House on Tuesday and met President Barack Obama, but this contest will likely leave them a bit sour during the break.
"There was none," Boston coach Claude Julien said when asked about his team's defense. "The way we played tonight, we gave them their goals, no question about that. The turnovers from our D, the type of goals that we gave them were certainly disappointing for our team tonight."