In mid-March of the 2008-09 season, Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin was chasing the 50-goal milestone for the third time in his career, in his fourth season in the NHL. At that time, the Capitals were in the midst of a four-game road trip through the Southeast Division, in which they lost to the Atlanta Thrashers 5-1 on March 16 and beaten the Florida Panthers 3-0, on March 17. The team then stopped in Tampa Bay for a game against the Lightning on March 19, after which they would play the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, North Carolina on March 21.
Heading into the game against the Bolts, the Caps held a 44-22-6 record and were in first place in the Southeast Division and second place overall in the Eastern Conference. The Lightning, meanwhile, were 23-32-15 and in last place in the Southeast Division, and among the bottom five teams in the league that would be eligible for the draft lottery.
Personnel-wise, the news was that Washington’s fourth- line center, Boyd Gordon, would miss 2-3 weeks due to a broken finger suffered in the team’s prior game, and placed on Injured Reserve. Fellow forward Quintin Laing was recalled from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears to replace him. Rookie goaltender Semyon Varlamov got the start for then-Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, making his first NHL start since December. The Lightning would counter in net with Mike McKenna.
The game started off on the wrong foot for the visitors, as winger Alexander Semin was called for a hooking penalty at the 6:34 mark of the opening frame. Just over 30 seconds later, with Tampa Bay on the power play, Bolts forward Ryan Malone was hit with an interference penalty, setting up a 4-on-4 situation between the division rivals. Just nine seconds into the 4-on-4, Ovechkin ripped a shot past McKenna to stake the Capitals to a 1-0 lead and his 50th goal of the season. After lighting the lamp, Ovechkin dropped his stick onto the ice, bent over, and tried to pick it up, acting on each attempt as though the stick were too hot to handle. Lightning fans were upset with Ovechkin’s actions and reacted with a chorus of boos.
Tampa Bay tied the score at the 17:39 mark on a power play goal from Steven Stamkos, just 14 seconds after Semin had received his second hooking penalty of the game. Just a few seconds after the Stamkos goal, Capitals defenseman Jeff Schultz was penalized for tripping, putting the visitors back on the penalty kill. Tampa Bay’s power play lasted less than a minute as Malone took his second interference penalty of the game, setting up another 4-on-4 for the Caps. Nearly a minute into the 4-on-4, and with just 10 seconds left in the period, Caps defenseman Mike Green scored his 26th goal of the season to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead to close out the period. During the period, Varlamov made several spectacular saves.
The first half of the second period went without many notable events, until Washington blueliner Milan Jurcina took an elbowing penalty at the 10:11 mark of the frame, a penalty the Caps would manage to kill off. With just over four minutes left in the period, Lightning Center Martin St. Louis scored the game-tying goal on assists from Malone and Matt Lashoff. At 19:12, Jurcina took another elbowing penalty at the same time Tampa Bay forward Matt Pettinger earned a high-sticking penalty, resulting in yet another 4-on-4 to end the period. The two teams headed into the second intermission tied at 2-2.
Early into the final frame, it appeared as though Capitals forward Eric Fehr had given the Caps an early third period lead, however, the goal was eventually disallowed. Soon afterwards at the 1:48 mark, Green scored his second goal of the game and his 27th of the year to put the visitors ahead 3-2; Viktor Kozlov and Ovechkin were credited with assists on the play. This additional goal by Green put him only three goals behind longtime Capitals blueliner Kevin Hatcher, who was the last defenseman to record 30 or more goals in a season (1991-92).
Stamkos took a tripping penalty a short time later at the 6:34 mark, putting the Caps on the power play. Just over a minute into the man-advantage, Capitals Center Michael Nylander scored his eighth goal of the season on assists from Kozlov and Ovechkin to give the Capitals a 4-2 lead. Right wing Matt Bradley added another goal at 12:26, on assists from Shaone Morrisonn and David Steckel to give the visitors a 5-2 lead, which remained the score for the rest of the game, one in which Varlamov recorded 26 saves.
While the Capitals won decisively, it was costly game on the injury front. Green did not play the last few minutes of the game after getting tangled up with Stamkos, having fallen to the ice, staying down momentarily, before hunching over on the bench. After the game, he claimed he just had the wind knocked out of him; however, he walked into the dressing room relatively slowly when talking to reporters. He had a bruised rib cage and ultimately missed a few games. The worst injury of the night came to recent recall Quintin Laing, who ended up tearing a spleen and was taken to the hospital.
The main post-game topic of discussion was Ovechkin’s goal and the “hot stick” celebration. Ovechkin himself was unapologetic but not everyone was happy with his celebration.
Ovechkin explained, “It’s done right now, no pressure, nothing. Me, [goaltender] José Theodore, [Nicklas] Backstrom and [Mike Green] said if I score goal, José tell me just put the stick on the ice and try like it’s so hot. Backie stopped and Greenie stopped, so I have to do it myself.” Don Cherry, then of Hockey Night In Canada, had recently criticized his exuberant celebrations, to which Ovechkin then smiled defiantly and added, “Oh yeah, he’s going to be [ticked] off for sure. I love it. I can’t wait till he says something about me. Old coaches, old system, you know?”
Lightning then-Head Coach Rick Tocchet, and goaltender McKenna were more critical of Ovechkin’s celebration.
Tocchet said, “He came down a notch in my book after that. I grew up in the old days in the Spectrum where that first period, after that happened, it might have been a three-hour first period. It’s not something I like [and] it’s hard for me to see that in our building.” McKenna added, “It’s not something I’ve ever seen at the NHL level, I can say that. He’s always exiting to watch. He’s great for the game, but it’s not something I would have done.”
Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau talked about Ovechkin’s celebration, “I haven’t said anything yet. It was his 50th, so maybe he was thinking of something special, I don’t know. He’s never done that with me that I’ve seen. I personally don’t like it as much.”
Boudreau talked more about Ovechkin, “He’s got a shot that’s second to none and he’s got a determination that’s second to none. There’s going to be more seasons where he’s going to get more than 50, more than 60 and maybe even in the 70 [range] before he’s done yet.”
Don Cherry discussed Ovechkin’s celebration in a Coach’s Corner segment soon afterwards.
By Diane Doyle