If there were any justice, today’s headlines would laud the Washington Capitals for winning back-to-back games on the road for the first time in nearly two years or backup goalie Brent Johnson for going a long way toward salvaging a career that didn’t seem salvageable a short time ago.
But Alex Ovechkin, the 20-year-old wunderkind, stole the show in the building where Wayne Gretzky coaches, helping the Caps to an overwhelming 6-1 victory over the host Phoenix Coyotes yesterday in Glendale, Ariz. Ovechkin had two goals — one a gift, the other possibly the league’s highlight goal of the season — and an assist to give him 32 goals and 58 points in 44 games.
Ben Clymer (sixth), Dainius Zubrus (11th), Brian Sutherby (10th) and Matt Bradley (fifth) also scored for Washington, which won games in Anaheim and Phoenix to finish the brief road swing 2-1-0. The last time the Caps won back-to-back away games was Jan.28-29, 2004.
Phoenix defenseman Keith Ballard redirected a loose puck past his own goalie 14 minutes into the first period, and the goal was awarded to Ovechkin, who was the last Caps player to touch it. Ballard later scored the Coyotes’ only goal.
Ovechkin’s next goal, in the third, was no gift. He was crossing right to left in front of goalie Brian Boucher, with defenseman Paul Mara riding him as if he were a rodeo bull. Mara finally took Ovechkin down, and Boucher stood and turned slightly away. Ovechkin, flat on the ice with Mara atop him, rolled over and backhanded the puck 12 feet into the net. The Glendale Arena crowd gasped and then applauded.
“That was pretty sweet,” the Great One told reporters. “You know, he’s a phenomenal player. He’s been a tremendous influence in the game. It’s great to see because he’s that good.”
Ovechkin called it “the best goal I ever scored. I just went down and shot.”
His 32 goals tie him with Bobby Carpenter (1981-82) for the most by a Caps rookie. His 58 points move him into fourth place in that category.
“The kid’s amazing,” said Johnson, who started this trip with a goals-against average of 4.91 and finished with a GAA of 4.20 and a record of 4-5, giving starter Olie Kolzig a week of rest. “He’s got one of the best shots I’ve ever seen … and one of the quickest releases.”
Gretzky stood behind his bench and just shook his head. He watched the Caps misfire with a two-man advantage and then kill off a huge two-man disadvantage late in the second. With the Coyotes already down by four, he knew the game was over.
But the Caps’ news out of Phoenix wasn’t all good. Washington is saddled with its worst string of major injuries of the season: four key players out with that dreaded “lower body” ailment, as NHL brass now describes anything from a hangnail to an amputation.
Those who did not play yesterday were center Jeff Halpern, who missed four games with a groin problem, played in two and is out again; left wing Matt Pettinger, suffering from the flu, according to a team spokesman, but apparently suffering from something else; and defenseman Steve Eminger, who caught his right skate in a rut at Anaheim and needed help to get off the ice. He also is down with a “lower body” ailment.
Defenseman Jamie Heward, who leads the team with an average of 24 minutes of ice time a game, left yesterday’s game with a “lower body” ailment and did not return for the third period. There was no estimate how long the four would be out or how serious their injuries were.
As it was, coach Glen Hanlon dressed seven defensemen yesterday, suiting up little used Mathieu Biron and Nolan Yonkman, but mainly he rotated his top five for two periods. After that, Yonkman got more ice time on defense, while Biron was used on the power play and took an occasional shift at right wing. The only healthy scratch was veteran center Andrew Cassels.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.