WASHINGTON —The final minute of the second period between the Capitals and Ducks on Monday looked like scenes cut from the cutting room floor of “Slapshot.”
With Washington ahead 2-0, all hell broke loose behind the Anaheim net just as Chandler Stephenson stepped into a pass from teammate Garnet Hathaway and ripped a shot past goalie John Gibson.
But for almost five minutes no one inside Capital One Arena knew if the goal counted at all as players from both sides traded blows and Hathaway spit on defenseman Erik Gudbranson.
That momentary loss of control could have severe consequences if the NHL decides to impose supplemental discipline. In all, the two teams combined for 50 minutes of penalties and two ejections. The goal did count and the Capitals won the game 5-2, but all talk afterward was about the wild scene at the end of the second.
“It has no place. It was an emotional play by me,” Hathaway said. “You don’t plan any of that stuff in your head and it was a quick reaction and unfortunately the wrong one for me after a sucker punch.”
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Brendan Leipsic hit everything that moved during that ferocious shift, including Ducks center Derek Grant directly next to the goal. The puck jarred loose. While Gudbranson and fellow Anaheim defenseman Brendan Guhle jumped Leipsic, Hathaway slipped a pass into the high slot for Stephenson, who scored.
“Growing up, playing against him since I was 15, and you know he's been the exact same,” Stephenson said. “He catches guys by surprise. I've seen him knock guys that are twice his size on their ass. He's a pretty stocky little fire hydrant out there."
Leipsic needed to be as the 6-5 Gudbranson and the 6-2 Guhle pummeled him. But the puck was in the net as the crowd roared and the players raged. It was glorious chaos.
Leipsic first checked Gudbranson hard behind the net with 51 seconds to go in the second period. Guhle then cross-checked him three times in the back in retaliation.
With 35 seconds to go, Leipsic struck again as Grant turned for a loose puck next to the Anaheim net. He never saw it coming. Leipsic drove hard and knocked Grant – who has four inches and 26 pounds on him at 6-3, 206 – to the ice.
While the Ducks wasted their time dealing retribution, the puck was headed out front and into their net. Gibson didn’t have a chance. Then things turned ugly. Hathaway took three rapid punches at Grant and then he got entangled with Ducks forward Nick Ritchie.
Gudbranson nudged his way into that scrap, but referee Peter MacDougall appeared to have them separated and in control grabbing their jersey collars. But as MacDougall turned his head, Gudbranson unexpectedly punched Hathaway in the face. Enraged, Hathaway clearly spits in his face.
"That's about as low as you dig a peg, really,” Gudbranson said. “It's a bad thing to do. It's something you just don't do in a game, and he did it."
Added Grant:“At the end of the day, it’s probably the least respectful thing you can ever do to somebody. It’s just not a good part of the game and you don’t want to see that. I thought the refs handled it. It’s something that will be handled after it as well.”
Hathaway has put the Capitals in a difficult spot. With Carl Hagelin and Nic Dowd injured and salary-cap space tight, there really is no way to call up another player from AHL Hershey if Hathaway gets suspended. Contrite after the game, Hathaway asked to speak to reporters.
“First there was a fight and then how I saw it was they had a third man in. I think they had a fourth man in, too,” Hathaway said. “The refs were trying to break it up and it felt like there was a couple sucker punches thrown and I got there one quick and then reacted a little emotionally and unfortunately spit came out of my mouth after I got sucker punched and it went on to him.”
Now, Hathaway hopes the NHL shows some leniency.
“I have a lot of time for Garnet Hathaway. He’s a stand up guy, a first-class guy,” Washington coach Todd Reirden said. “He was getting punched by a couple different guys at once and lost control of his emotion and did something that there’s no place for in the league. That’s disappointing. He feels terrible about it. But he didn’t have to talk to anybody today. He’s the first one to say ‘I want to own up for what I did.’ He’s not happy about it. That’s who he is. He made a mistake and we’ll see where it goes [Tuesday].”
It was a dark moment in an otherwise excellent game for the Capitals who are 13-1-2 in their past 16 and continue to roll with the NHL’s best record. They just weren’t expecting such a wild and crazy night against a Western Conference team on a Monday night in November. You never know what you’re going to get with this sport. And it all started with a big hit from a smaller man.
“I don't know, I was kind of a big blackout after that when everyone starts getting whipped around and stuff,” Leipsic said. “I didn't even know Chandler scored until the dust was all settled. It was nice to get a goal out of it too, I guess."
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