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Ovechkin's big night fuels Caps to win over Leafs

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Ovechkin's big night fuels Caps to win over Leafs

Barry Trotz wasn’t crazy about the overall game Alex Ovechkin played against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night but he’s smart enough to know that without him the Capitals probably don’t pull out a wild 3-2 shootout victory.

Ovechkin tied Sergei Fedorov atop the Russian goal-scoring mountain with his 483rd career goal, had his record-breaking goal overturned because of a hotly disputed goalie interference call, then netted the only goal of the shootout to give the Caps their 10th win of the season.

“That’s what Ovi has done here for a long time,” Trotz said. “Big goals at big times and he got it done today.

“And it really wasn’t one of his best games, honestly. But when you need him to step up he does. That’s what stars do and he’s a star, a gold star.”

The win ran the Capitals’ record to 10-3-0 and dropped the hard-luck Leafs to 2-8-4.

The Capitals appeared to tie the score with 2:39 to play when Ovechkin scored what everyone in the building thought was an historic goal – except for the folks in the NHL war room, which happens to be located in Toronto.

Ovechkin backhanded a shot over Leafs goalie James Reimer and celebrated by taking off his glove and raising his index finger into the air, thinking he just became the highest scoring Russian in NHL history with goal No. 484. 

But after a lengthy review, the goal was taken away from the Capitals’ 30-year-old captain.

“Last year it would be a good goal but it’s something new for us,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t know who makes the call, the referees or the guys from Toronto, but it is what it is. 

“Obviously, it sucks. You think like, OK, you’re number one. But you’re not. So you have to think about the game.”

RELATED: Ovechkin ties Fedorov as top Russian goal scorer

Williams was seething on the bench when the goal was overturned and he didn’t hide his feelings after the game. 

“I knew instantly when I got back to the bench they were going to challenge it,” Williams said. “I thought I went to the net and did everything I could not to touch the goalie and I don’t think I was interfering with him when the shot was taken. But it was disallowed. 

“I don’t care. I’ll say it. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.”  

Neither did Trotz, who has had three of four reviews this season go against his team.

“The way I looked at it, we put the puck to the net,” Trotz said. “Williams was there and in my opinion Reimer gets outside the crease and into Williams. (Williams is) trying to sidestep him. I don’t know if Reimer would have been in any position to save it if he doesn’t do that. It’s very gray.”

That gray turned to a sea of red when, with 0.8 seconds remaining in regulation, Nicklas Backstrom swatted a bouncing puck over an outstretched Reimer to send the crowd into a frenzy and the game into overtime.

“Everyone was excited,” said Backstrom, who was nearly toppled over by Ovechkin’s leap onto his shoulders. “(I’m glad) no one got hurt.”

MORE CAPITALS: Caps win wild one after Backstrom ties it late

Tom Wilson, who had taken a penalty earlier in the third period that led to the Leafs’ game-tying goal, noticed a few seats were empty when Backstrom netted the game-tying goal.

“I saw a couple fans walk out after Ovi's goal was disallowed,” Wilson said, “and they're going to be a little upset they did that, I think.”

The two teams traded chances in the 3-on-3 overtime before it came down to a shootout. After T.J. Oshie rang one of the crossbare, Evgeny Kuznetsov put one off the post and Backstrom was stopped by Reimer’s right pad, Ovechkin outwaited Reimer to go top shelf for the game-winner.

Braden Holtby did the rest, stopping consecutive shootout attempts by P.A. Parenteau, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri.

“I’m glad because the guys picked me up after the first goal, which I should have had,” Holtby said. “Luck wasn’t going our way and we stuck with it. It pays off when your leader scores at the end of the game like that.”

In the end, it was hard to tell whether Holtby was talking about Backstrom, Ovechkin or both. 

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

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USA Today Sports

The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

Tuesday’s practice was a lot like every other for the Caps until the end. After working on the power play, the team gathered at one end of the ice and began working on faceoffs. It was not just the centers, but wingers and defensemen alike got into the action with every win celebrated by loud cheers from teammates.

It should could as no surprise to see faceoffs as a point of emphasis for Washington considering just how much the team has struggled with them in the early season. The Caps rank 30th in the league in faceoff win percentage at only 43.8-percent.

“Yeah, there's little details that can help our game,” Lars Eller told reporters after practice. “The more you have the puck, easier the game is gonna be for you. We have a little more time in between games than usual during the season here, so we have the time to work on something like that, which can be little things that makes the difference.”

The team as a whole watched video on faceoffs prior to practice and then worked as a five-man unit during the drill. The main point of emphasis head coach Todd Reirden wanted to drill into his players was that faceoffs are not simply the responsibility of the centers alone.

“The days of it just being center vs. center and a clean draw being won back are a rarity now so it's important to have all five guys helping, something we watched video on earlier today,” Reirden said.

“You ask any centerman if they have a good group of wingers that can help them out on draws, that makes a huge difference,” Nic Dowd said. “I've been lucky, I have [Devante Smith-Pelly] on my right and I'm a righty so I win all my draws my backhand side so a lot of pucks go his way and he wins a lot of draws for me. That's huge. You have a guy that's sitting over there that's sleeping, you could go easily from five wins to five losses and then that's your night. It makes a big difference.”

Faceoffs were always going to be more of a struggle for the Caps this season with the departure of Jay Beagle who was, by far, the team’s best faceoff man for several years. Whenever the team needed a big draw, Beagle was the player relied upon to win it. With him gone, it is no surprise to see the team struggle.

But the Caps don’t like the idea of keeping possession off a draw just 43.8-percent of the time.

“It's essentially like the ref is creating a 50-50 puck and you snap it back, you get possession, now you're forechecking and it makes a huge difference,” Dowd said. “You play against those top lines, they want to be in the O-zone. Well, if you lose the draw, now you're playing D-zone, you win the draw now you're playing O-zone. So effectively, you've shut down their shift.”

There is a school of thought suggesting that perhaps the importance of winning faceoffs is overrated and a team’s faceoff win percentage is not overly important. Eller himself admitted as much to reporters.

What no one can argue, however, is that while some faceoffs may not matter all that much, there are some that are hugely important in a game. The Caps recognize that. For them, being a strong faceoff team is not necessarily about improving the team’s win percentage, but more about being able to win those critical draws.

“It's something that for the most part the players understand and a neutral zone faceoff with 14 minutes to go in the first period is not nearly as important as one that's 5-on-6 at the end of the game,” Reirden said. “We all know that. It's important to put the right people on those situations and give them the best chance to have success.”

“A center ice draw, I could see where guys could make the argument, well you lose it you still will play hockey and stuff could still happen,” Dowd said. “But I think the game is such a possession game now that any opportunity you can win a 50-50 puck whether that's a faceoff or a board battle, it makes a huge difference.”

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

Like it or not, the NHL is becoming younger, louder, and more personable. And as its young stars begin to gain leadership positions, the demand from a younger subset of fans grows larger: Make hockey fun again. Let players have personality on the ice and off, be it through social media engagement, game-day fashion, or creative goal celebrations.

Some say that hockey was always fun. True, to an extent. 

Minute per game minute, you arguably can’t find a faster, more action-packed major sport. But among the North American leagues, and internationally, the NBA still dominates on Twitter activity and in its social media. 

One of the biggest factors that helped basketball succeed in the social age wasn’t the NHL’s commonly preached conformity.

The NBA found huge success in marketing its star players as larger-than-life, letting them have public personas that tied into larger, richer narratives spanning careers, teams, and decades.

Superstar Auston Matthews, the up-and-coming 21-year-old face of American hockey, has taken note, citing NBA star Russell Westbrook’s individuality as a source of inspiration in a recent GQ feature

He’s well met by former USA National Team Development Program teammates Jack Eichel, who was recently named captain of the Buffalo Sabres; Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s hometown darling who’s stepping up as an assistant captain for the Red Wings; and Matthew Tkachuk, who’s also wearing an A in Calgary.

It’s not only the born and bred American youngsters who are ready to stand out. The team responsible for the resurgence of the debate about how much fun is too much is none other than the Washington Capitals, whose summer celebrations led to the ban of the legendary Cup Stand.

Though the publicity of their championship celebrations was revolutionary, the Capitals hold more promise in amount of fun per sixty. After a title win, their petty grudges are only transforming into a bold sense of self-confidence.

Alex Ovechkin is already a superstar on a mission to grab the attention of all the boys and girls and babes in the hockey world. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s interviews and celebrations reveal a player growing into the spotlight, ready to embrace a downright devious kind of skill against his opponents. Braden Holtby is already a league-recognized style icon whose meticulously chosen plaid suits and well-groomed beard have woven into the hype of game-day coverage. And Nicklas Backstrom is finally smiling on-camera.

(This isn’t even mentioning highly polarizing figure Tom Wilson, whose aggressive approach on the ice has earned him the marking of a player everyone hates unless he’s on their team.)

If the NHL wants to appeal to new viewers, it can gain ground by marketing its stars outside of a bland, monotone mold for success. 

With high-scoring, chaotically delightful games that happen almost every night all across the continent, an audience needs something to anchor them.

Individuality isn’t a bad place to start.

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