For the better part of the evening, Tuesday's Caps-Kings contest at Capital One Arena was a bit of a snooze-fest, a game likely to spike concourse coffee sales. But with just over six minutes left, Alex Ovechkin literally took over and put a whole new coat of red paint on the game.
When it was over, the Caps were 4-2 winners as Ovechkin notched a natural hat trick, scoring three goals in a span of just 4 minutes and 24 seconds on a night in which he was held without a shot on net for the first 53 minutes of the game.
"We played a good game," laments Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. "Obviously there are ups and downs throughout the game, and they dominated a few times and we dominated a few times. But to shut down the best scorer in our generation by a mile for 55 minutes, and then let him get three in the last five minutes or whatever the minutes were, it's really frustrating."
The late third period thunder from the Caps captain pushed him to 40 goals on the season for the 11th time in his career; only Wayne Gretzky (12) has had more 40-goal campaigns in the NHL. Ovechkin has 698 career goals and is two goals away from becoming just the eighth player in league history to reach the 700-goal plateau.
With 14 goals - and three hat tricks - in his last seven games, Ovechkin is hotter than the sun right now, but without the harmful UVA rays.
Video: LAK@WSH: Ovechkin earns natural hat trick in win
"I have not seen that," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "That's impressive, and just tonight sums it all up. In less than five minutes, he took over the game, and we won the game because of that.
"That's what superstars do. We're fortunate to have him - I say it all the time - that D.C. and the surrounding areas are just so fortunate to be able to witness what we're seeing in front of our eyes and have seen over the last number of years. This is a real, real special player."
With Washington down 2-1 in the back half of the third, Ovechkin finally managed his first shot on net of the night with 6:10 left, taking a sublime T.J. Oshie feed and depositing it behind Kings goalie Jonathan Quick from the top of the paint, knotting the game at 2-2.
The Kings had been stymying more than just Ovechkin up to that juncture. His first goal was just the fifth shot on net of the night from one of Washington's top six forwards, and it was the first of those five to come from inside of 25 feet away.
"That obviously was a tough couple of periods for our line," says Ovechkin, "but when Osh jumped in, you could see we started to create some moments out there."
He wasn't done, either. Seventy seconds after the first strike, Ovechkin took a feed from John Carlson, gained the zone and fired again. Quick made the stop, but lost the handle on the rebound, which Ovechkin quickly found and buried at 15:00, giving the Caps their first lead of the night, 3-2.
With Quick pulled for an extra attacker, Ovechkin went long distance into the vacant cage to fill out his natural hat trick, lobbing a wrist shot from just inside the Washington line at 18:14 to a count for the 4-2 final.
Video: Reirden Postgame | February 4
"We looked at the end of the second period, their top line didn't have anything on the net," says Kings coach Todd McLellan. "And you knew they weren't going to go the whole night that way, but for Ovi, there is a reason why he's got 700, and give him a couple more years and he'll be at 800. It's that type of night where you don't see him a lot early, and then bang, bang, bang - it's in the net and they've won."
The first two and a half periods weren't nearly as exciting as the final six-plus minutes.
With just under five minutes remaining in the first, Los Angeles took a 1-0 lead. Tyler Toffoli made a cross-ice, cross-zone pass from his own line to Jeff Carter at the Washington line. Carter carried in and shot from the top of the left circle, beating Caps goalie Braden Holtby on the glove side to give the visitors a 1-0 lead at 15:03 of the first.
The Caps had next to nothing going on offensively in the first. Their lone power play opportunity failed to produce a shot on net, and they went over nine minutes without a shot on net at one point. Only one of their shots - a wraparound bid from Richard Panik - came from inside of 25 feet from the Los Angeles net.
Washington got the game knotted up before the midpoint of the middle period, manufacturing the tying tally in transition. Carl Hagelin came back on the backcheck and picked off an Anze Kopitar pass high in the Washington end, and he flipped a backhand feed to Nicklas Backstrom in neutral ice. Backstrom gained the Los Angeles line, then made a lateral feed for a late arriving Carlson. From the upper inside portion of the right circle, Carlson beat Quick to make it a 1-1 game at 7:25.
Video: LAK@WSH: Carlson wrists puck home on rush
The Caps killed off a Kings power play to start the third period, and Washington finally started to generate a bit of offensive zone time. But it was the Kings who broke the deadlock; they went back on top 2-1 on Carter's second of the night, a net front deflection on a shot that originated from Doughty, who became the Kings' all-time scoring leader among defenseman.
Carter's second goal of the game gave Los Angeles a 2-1 lead with 8:27 remaining, setting the stage for Ovechkin's monstrous finish.
"Give them credit," says McLellan of the Caps. "They believe in what they're doing, and they're patient. They wait for mistakes and they capitalize. Good teams do that. We're not good enough right now to make mistakes or to give up a freebie and overcome it. The difference between the two teams is exactly that."