- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Jay McClement shoved Nicklas Backstrom’s head into the boards, and Alex Ovechkin came to his teammate’s aid. Washington Capitals fans roared at the replay, and it didn’t even matter that the captain took a penalty by jumping the Toronto Maple Leafs forward.

From that moment on, the Caps dominated the Maple Leafs on the way to a 5-1 rout, their eighth straight victory. Washington leads the Southeast Division by four points over the Winnipeg Jets with five games to play. The latest was thanks in large part to Ovechkin defending Backstrom.

“It shows team toughness, and that’s what a leader’s all about, too,” defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “I think Alex brings that. He’s not afraid to stand in there for his teammates, no matter who it is. And I think he showed that, and I think our team feeds off stuff like that.”

Momentum is a curious thing, but it’s easy to trace Tuesday night’s to the 15:24 mark of the first period. McClement was not penalized on the play, but Ovechkin got two minutes for charging.

At the time, the Caps had a 1-0 lead on defenseman Jack Hillen’s goal that went off Toronto forward Nazem Kadri and in. They may have mustered enough offense to beat a tired Maple Leafs team, but the energy from Ovechkin’s response to McClement didn’t hurt.

“That’s your captain sticking up for one of the best players on our team,” defenseman Jack Hillen said. “I think anybody on our team would have done that, and he did a great job. That’s why he’s our captain and that definitely gave us some more momentum.”

Fans at Verizon Center booed the no-call on McClement and minor on Ovechkin vociferously and chanted “Ovi” as he sat in the penalty box. They roared the entire penalty kill.

“Yeah, you can hear the crowd, you know? The guys said they were going to kill it all day long,” Ovechkin said. “I think it shows the character of the team, and it shows that everybody cares about each other.”

The crowd that was late-arriving because of increased security measures put in place following Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings was at its loudest when Ovechkin stepped back onto the ice. He didn’t think it was such a big deal.

“I just step up for my teammate, and I think everybody would do the same if it were happening to me or [Matt Hendricks],” Ovechkin said. “Everybody going to do the same thing.”

The Caps had the Maple Leafs hemmed in their zone for much of the first period, and they only seemed to thrive with more pushing and shoving. Left wing Jason Chimera got McClement to answer for his questionable hit on Backstrom by fighting 38.9 seconds before intermission.

“Chimmer did a good job jumping in and showing that you can’t touch our best players,” Ovechkin said.

More words were exchanged at the buzzer, and the Caps came out in the second and floored Toronto, which played Monday night and could have clinched a playoff berth with a win and a Jets regulation loss. Martin Erat, Troy Brouwer and Ovechkin scored within 8 minutes, 56 seconds, and this time the Caps didn’t blow a four-goal lead.

“Because it happened once, we were going to make sure it didn’t happen again,” Brouwer said.

Ovechkin, who Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning could be seen barking at teammates while the lead was slipping away, was at the center of the Caps crushing the Maple Leafs this time. He scored his league-leading 28th of the year on the power play, making it 18 goals in the past 16 games.

“Obviously Alex has really led our team, and you see it every night now,” coach Adam Oates said. “You saw his energy tonight. Obviously every team that we play they have to focus on him.”

Ovechkin’s offense is worthy of that attention, but it was his defense of Backstrom that charged up teammates and earned the third-year captain even more respect.

“We’re a great group of guys and we stand up for each other,” Backstrom said. “It’s nice that we’re backing each other up, that’s for sure.”

Ovechkin made a beeline toward McClement as soon as he saw Backstrom’s head hit the boards right in front of Toronto’s bench. Backstrom only saw the board, but Ovechkin knew what he had to do.

“We don’t really talk about it,” Brouwer said. “We don’t really say, ‘Hey if you get hit, I’ll stick up for you.’ We expect it out of each other. We’re a family in here and with that, you’re always going to stick up for your family members. You’re always going to stick up for your friends. Out there it’s no different, you’re just allowed to fight.”

Ovechkin didn’t have to go after McClement, and Chimera didn’t have to seek justice with his fists later on. But those are the moments that bring a team closer together and those that will be remembered.

“As you’re winning and as you’re bonding and having more fun playing hockey together, those bonds are going to get stronger between the guys,” Brouwer said. “They’re going to feel more compelled to stand up for each other when things are going really well for you. Not saying that guys wouldn’t do it when you’re not winning, but you just have that camaraderie that grows and grows when you’re having success as a team.”

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