Just over a week ago, the Capitals came home reeling from a humbling two-game road trip out west in which they played poorly and were twice drubbed. On Saturday night in Toronto, the Caps put a forceful coda on a strong eight nights of hockey with a 4-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Alex Ovechkin recorded the 20th hat trick of his career - a Washington franchise record - and Braden Holtby made 27 saves to earn his 13th win of the season. The win was Washington's fourth in five games over a span of eight nights since the conclusion of that dismal road trip.
Video: WSH@TOR: Ovechkin collects hatty in special fashion
Ovechkin invited 13-year-old cancer patient Alex Luey and his family to come to Toronto for Saturday's game, and he told the youngster he'd score a goal for him. Ovechkin followed through, three times.
"You could tell the first shift that the big man was going to be jumping tonight," says Caps coach Barry Trotz of Ovehckin. "There was something going on. There was no doubt that he was motivated to make the other Alex's night really special."
Ovechkin staked the Caps to a 2-0 lead in the first, and he salted the game away for good with an empty-netter in the waning seconds of the contest, completing the hat trick.
Video: Caps Postgame Locker Room | November 25
"It's great," says Washington winger T.J. Oshie. "When Big Eight is going, he pulls the team with him. When you see him out there working hard - and it wasn't only the goals, the goals were awesome - but he was working, he was forechecking and he was hitting. When he does all that, there aren't many guys probably in the world that can keep up."
Ovechkin got the Caps on the board first when he scored his 16th goal of the season a couple of minutes past the midpoint of the first period. Nicklas Backstrom won a board battle in the Washington end, and he sauced a pass to Ovechkin along the half wall in the Capitals' zone. Ovechkin flagged the puck out of mid air, settled it and wove his way through neutral ice, skirting a defender and driving the center lane as he gained the Toronto zone. From between the circles, Ovechkin let a wrist shot fly, and it beat Leafs goalie Curtis McElhinney on the stick side for a 1-0 Washington lead at 12:43 of the first.
Video: Ovechkin's hat trick leads Capitals past Leafs, 3-2
Ovechkin's first goal gave the Caps their first lead of the season in the second of back-to-back games, and it came in their fifth set of back-to-backs of 2017-18. It was also a lead that Washington would not relinquish.
The Capitals got their first power play chance late in the first, and they took advantage of the opportunity to double up their lead.
In the final minute of the first, T.J. Oshie won a right dot draw, pulling it to space in the high slot. Ovechkin pounced on the wobbling disc and pumped a one-timer past McElhinney on the stick side with 46.5 seconds left in the first period, increasing the Washington advantage to 2-0. It was Ovechkin's second goal in the final minute of the first frame in the last three games.
Washington added to its lead in the middle period, getting a wheels goal from Jakub Vrana just past the midpoint of the contest. Vrana's goal was similar to Ovechkin's first goal of the night, in that the Caps managed to go 200 feet to light the lamp in a matter of seconds with minimal puck movement.
Video: Caps 365 | November 25
From behind the Washington net, Matt Niskanen rolled the puck around the boards, and Oshie chipped it ahead, almost to the Capitals' blueline. That's where Vrana streaked into the picture to pick up the loose disc and charged past Leafs blueliner Nikita Zaitsev, quickly gaining separation and a breakaway opportunity. Vrana snapped a shot past McElhinney's blocker, giving the Capitals a 3-0 lead at 11:02 of the second.
Half a minute or so after the Vrana goal, Leafs winger Matt Martin was called for an offensive-zone cross-checking call that gave the Caps a power play chance and an opportunity to further pad their lead. Washington wasn't able to do so, but it did carry that 3-0 lead into the final 20 minutes.
Toronto turned on the jets in the third, and the Leafs were successful in making a game of it. Auston Matthews teed one up for Jake Gardiner, who blasted a shot from center point past Holtby at 1:24 of the third, ending the netminder's shutout bid.
Less than five minutes later, the Leafs pulled to within a goal. Caps forward Chandler Stephenson turned the puck over high in the Toronto zone, leaving a drop pass that got scooped up by the Leafs and carried into Washington ice. Ten seconds later, Zaitsev skated the perimeter on the left side, and issued a centering feed as he reached the goal line. The puck glanced off Taylor Chorney's stick and rolled up Holtby's body and over his right shoulder and into the net, making it a 3-2 game with plenty of time - 13:51 - remaining in regulation.
Video: Barry Trotz Postgame | November 26
The Caps occasionally bent but never broke the rest of the way, and Ovechkin completed the hat trick, roofing a backhander with 8.7 seconds remaining as a sliding Leafs defender tried in vain to guard the empty net.
On a night in which every other Metropolitan Division team that played also picked up two points, Saturday's victory was important from the standpoint of keeping pace. But it was also important as part of the Caps' ongoing evolution as a team, and in terms of their response to a subpar Western road trip.
"We had the one hiccup game against Calgary where we weren't awful," says Niskanen, "but we just didn't do anything. But other than that, it was a pretty darned good week. We beat some good teams, had a lot of solid efforts from a few different guys, some solid team efforts defensively and [goaltender Philipp Grubauer] got his first win. That's a good week."