Erik Gustafsson gets a hat trick in one of the Capitals’ biggest wins this season


There was a hat trick Saturday night at Capital One Arena, but it wasn’t you-know-who.

It was actually one of the least likely Washington Capitals to do it: Erik Gustafsson.

The defenseman scored his first, second and third goals of the season and Charlie Lindgren stopped 22 of the final 23 shots he faced as the Caps secured a 5-2 victory over Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Washington has now won six of its last seven games and earned at least one point 11 of 15 games (9-4-2) to claw back into contention for a playoff berth.

“It’s been a mountain,” Coach Peter Laviolette said. “It’s nice to push into that (second wild card) spot but your eyes are always looking up the mountain. Where can you get to next? It has been a long journey but it has got to continue to push upward.”

You-know-who is, of course, Alex Ovechkin, who stayed at 800 career goals for the second game in a row. 

The Caps’ captain was active, though.

He had a few good scoring chances and recorded a team-high six hits, including a highlight reel body check on Connor Timmins, whom he sent over the dasher board and into the home team’s bench. Afterward, the capacity crowd serenaded Ovechkin with chants of “Ovi! Ovi! Ovi!”

“I don’t notice anything with him,” Laviolette said, asked if he sensed that the chase is at all weighing on No. 8. “It’s going to come. We don’t talk about it much. We don’t focus on it, we focus on the game and the team concept. We focus on the power play and the structure. We focus on five-on-five, and what to do. And inside of that, at some point, it’ll come. The big thing I always talk about is the process. Just play the game the right way and good things will happen.”

Ovechkin’s next chance to catch and/or pass Gordie Howe (801 goals) for second on the all-time list will come Monday against Mr. Hockey’s Red Wings in D.C.

Saturday’s win came at a cost, though. And a potentially steep one if T.J. Oshie is sidelined for a significant amount of time. 

Oshie pulled up lame on a second-period backcheck and, after propping himself up with his stick on the bench for a few moments, headed to the dressing room. He did not return.

He walked gingerly as he left the arena. The team said he suffered an upper-body injury.

“Because of the history there is always a concern,” Laviolette said.

Asked if the latest injury was related to the one that caused Oshie to miss 11 games earlier this season, Laviolette said: “I am not sure. Just the way he left, he’s got some sort of upper-body injury. We’ll go back and assess it and see how he is (Sunday). I don’t know if it is identical or exact, but I think just because of the history you are just a little bit more concerned about that.”

The Caps are 2-6-3 this season when Oshie is out and 22-22-8 without him since 2020-21.

Oshie’s departure put a little bit of a damper on one of the Caps’ biggest wins of the season, a key triumph powered by a player who came into the game without a single goal in his previous 31 contests.

Gustafsson’s first goal opened the scoring midway through the opening period. His second goal extended Washington’s lead to 3-1 early in the second. No. 3 came early in the third period, and it put the Caps ahead 5-2 and the game out of the Leafs’ reach.

“Scoring the first goal as a Cap, too, and get a hattie, that is pretty unbelievable,” Gustafsson said.

“It’s not going to happen too often,” he added with a laugh. “It was a great feeling, but obviously it was a great win, too.”

Trevor van Riemsdyk and Garnet Hathaway also scored for the Caps, while Sonny Milano added three assists, one game after being sidelined with an illness. 

Milano now has seven assists in his last seven games.

“From this deathbed right?” Laviolette cracked. “Sonny was excellent coming off of an illness. Guys are getting whacked with that everywhere, and he got it. He muscled out there this morning got through the (morning) skate, then came in and played really good for us. Three helpers and plus two. Fantastic job.”

After a strong first 20 minutes for Washington, Toronto dominated the game territorially in the second period, outshooting the Caps 14-6. More outstanding play from Lindgren is the sole reason they managed to take a 3-2 lead into the third. 

Since stepping in for injured starter Darcy Kuemper on Dec. 5, Lindgren is 6-1-0 with a 1.87 goals-against average.

“He was really big in the second period,” Laviolette said of Lindgren. “I thought that was our weak spot of the night and when you have a weak spot like that, you have one guy that can really bail you out of it and he did that for us.”

Added van Riemsdyk: “That second period I don’t think was great from us. They had a lot of really good looks and Charlie stood on his head and kept the game where it was, got us to the locker room after the second and we could gather ourselves. I thought we played a pretty good third, not giving them too much. But if you don’t have Chuck there in the second, it’s a completely different game.”

And gather themselves, they did. 

Hathaway scored 10 seconds into the third period to put the Caps up 4-2 and, a few shifts later, Gustafsson finished the visitors off by sniping a shot off of a pretty cross-ice pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov past Ilya Samsonov. Kuznetsov has a goal and eight assists in the last eight games.

After Gustafsson’s third goal, the hats rained down on the ice, as Ovechkin implored the fans to keep throwing them.

As Laviolette said, the climb is not over. Not by a long shot. But at least they’re finally out of the hole they dug themselves with a 5-7-2 slump in November.

“First of all, it’s the guys,” Laviolette said. “When you get commitment from the guys, you’re in every game. A (few) of the things we talk about are defense and puck decisions and attacking the net. That’s the thing about team sports and hockey — every guy has to do their job and they have to play hard and we’ve gotten that on most nights. Guys have played hard. They’ve done the right things.”

(Photo: Geoff Burke / USA Today)


Related posts

Leave a Comment