Caps fans gladly hurl their hats onto the ice. (USA TODAY SPORTS IMAGES)
WASHINGTON - Alex Ovechkin produced his first hat trick in more than two years Saturday, leading the struggling Washington Capitals to a 5-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils.
Ovechkin entered the game with five goals in 16 games this season, only good enough to be tied for third on his own team, which began the day with a 5-10-1 record and 11 standings points, the fewest in the 30-team NHL.
But the two-time NHL MVP broke out in a big way, turning in his first three-goal game since a 4-1 victory at Toronto on Jan. 22, 2011.
Ilya Kovalchuk's goal with 37.5 seconds left in the second period tied the game for New Jersey, but Ovechkin put Washington ahead to stay 1:23 into the third.
After Eric Fehr netted Washington's first short-handed goal of the season, Ovechkin added insurance with a power-play goal to make it 4-1 with less than 5 minutes remaining. And for good measure, Ovechkin added an assist by setting up Troy Brouwer's power-play goal with 2:51 to go.
Ovechkin hadn't even scored two goals in a game since a loss to Winnipeg on March 23, 2012. He came into Saturday having gone without a point in half of Washington's 16 games, including Thursday's 3-2 loss to New Jersey.
Capitals goalie Braden Holtby made 21 saves and stopped a penalty shot. Devils goalie Johan Hedberg also made 21 saves, but he allowed four goals in the third period. Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey came in with 24 points, tied for the most in the Eastern Conference.
On Ovechkin's first goal, Jason Chimera brought the puck up the right wing before centering it to Mike Ribeiro, who found Ovechkin unattended in the left circle. Ovechkin one-timed a wrister past Hedberg at the 5:20 mark of the second period, then dropped to a knee and pumped his right fist before spinning and punching the glass with both gloves.
Holtby temporarily helped preserve the hosts' lead by blocking the first penalty shot of Steve Bernier's NHL career.
With the Devils on a power play 12 minutes into the second period, Bernier broke behind the defense after a stop in play at the other end, and Washington's Tom Poti dragged him to the ice. But Holtby stopped Bernier's penalty shot with the edge of his right pad, prompting chants of "Holt-beee! Holt-beee!" from the stands.
The teams headed to the final period even at 1-1, though, because of Kovalchuk, who scored the game-winner Thursday. Half a minute after Washington took a timeout, Kovalchuk swept in and used defenseman John Erskine to help screen Holtby on a slap shot from just across the blue line.
After getting outshot 13-4 in the first period Thursday, Washington held an 11-5 edge in the opener Saturday, but both teams went scoreless.
By far the best opportunity for either side came with a little more than 7 minutes left in the first period, when Capitals left wing Wojtek Wolski found himself all alone near the net with Devils goalie Johan Hedberg down on the ice.
But despite the wide-open goal, Wolski could not convert, sending his shot clear through the crease. He rolled his head back and looked up, as if to say, "How did I miss that?!"