Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images
Continuing a recent stretch of NoVa Caps’ Retro Recaps, Diane Doyle takes a look back at a game played in November 2009, at a time when the Washington Capitals were battling for the Eastern Conference lead and one of their then-division rivals, the Carolina Hurricanes, were having a worse than expected season, all leading to a late-month showdown between the two clubs..
Heading into their contest against Carolina on November 30, 2009, the Capitals held a record of 15-5-6 and had won their last two games when they traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina to play the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes were, to that point in the young 2009-10 campaign, having a very poor season at 5-16-5 and dead last in the NHL standings. The ‘Canes were also missing numerous players due to injury; the Caps also had a long injury list that included right wing Alexander Semin (wrist), right wing Mike Knuble (broken finger), defenseman Shaone Morrisonn (concussion), center Boyd Gordon (back), defenseman Tom Poti (chest injury), and forward Quintin Laing (jaw). They were decimated enough in forwards that defenseman Tyler Sloan would play as a winger. Jose Theodore got the nod in net for the Capitals while Michael Leighton was the starter for Carolina due to starter Cam Ward being sidelined with an injury.
Nearly three minutes into the opening period, Capitals forward Mathieu Perreault was called for hooking. A minute and a half into the penalty, at the 4:07 mark of the frame, Carolina defenseman Joe Corvo scored on the ensuing power play after scooping up a rebound of a shot by Tuomo Ruutu, assisted by Eric Staal. Two minutes later, the skate of Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner appeared to slice the back of one of Corvo’s legs. Corvo was then taken to the hospital to get the cut closed; it required over 100 stitches and he was placed on Injured Reserve.
Just over a minute after Corvo was taken off the ice, Capitals’ forward Alex Ovechkin fed Nicklas Backstrom at the crease, who then buried it for his fifth goal of the year and his first in 13 games to tie the game at 1-1.
At 12:05, Ovechkin lined up Hurricanes defensemen Tim Gleason as he tried to skate the puck out of the defensive zone. Ovechkin attempted to line his shoulder against Gleason’s chest, except that Gleason changed directions shortly before impact. The result was a knee-on-knee hit that resulted in both players going to the dressing room.
Ovechkin crumpled to the ice clutching his right knee and did not place any weight on the leg when he was helped off the ice moments later by teammates and the Capitals’ then-Head Athletic Trainer Greg Smith. He was assessed five minutes for kneeing and a game-misconduct. The misconduct put the Hurricanes on a five-minute power play which the Capitals managed to kill off. During the man-advantage, Gleason returned to the game. Soon after the major penalty expired, Capitals forward Eric Fehr found himself on a 2-on-1 with Backstrom, and scored his seventh goal of the year and his fourth in three games to give the visitors a 3-1 lead.
The Caps took two penalties early in the second period, when forward Brooks Laich took a high-sticking penalty at the 4:06 mark. During the Laich penalty, Jussi Jokinen of the Hurricanes was robbed by Theodore in the Washington net, when the Caps’ goaltender stretched out his glove while stretched out on the ground. Tomas Fleischmann was then whistled for an interference penalty at 5:50, which put the ‘Canes on a brief, 17-second, 5-on-3 power play.
With just over five minutes left in the period, Backstrom scored his second goal of the game, faking out Leighton (who was out of position) for a beautiful – albeit uncontested – goal-scorer’s goal. The visitors now led 4-1.
The third period featured numerous penalties for both teams. Carolina captain Eric Staal and Capitals defenseman Tyler Sloan had a verbal back-and-forth at 14:25, which was interrupted by Gleason, who jumped into the fray and earned himself a misconduct as the “third man in”. Forward Matt Cullen scored for Carolina with just 16 seconds left in the game, cutting the deficit to 4-2, which stood as the final score.
For the game, Jose Theodore made 38 saves on 40 shots. The Hurricanes recorded 13 shots in the first seven minutes of the game, while Capitals players were serving penalties. Then-Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau talked about the late goal Theodore allowed saying, “I’m a little disappointed the second one went in, because [Theodore] deserved a one-goal game. The first seven minutes, when they had 13 shots, they kept us in. It should have been two-or three-nothing.”
The main questions after the game revolved around Ovechkin’s knee-on-knee hit to Gleason and potential repercussions that may result from the play. Given that he had earned a major penalty and an ejection from a game just five days earlier (against the Buffalo Sabres on November 25), he was already subject to more scrutiny for his physical play, a suspension was seen as likely. The offenses were slightly different, having been ejected for boarding against Buffalo and for kneeing against Carolina.
Boudreau spoke after the game, “Anytime Alex is hurt, I’m concerned. He’s stiff right now. But I don’t know how long he’s going to be out, if he’s out at all. With these things, the next morning you find out a lot more.”
Boudreau also talked about the hit, “It looked like he leaned with his shoulder to me. Gleason put a good move to the inside and his leg followed through with him.”
Carolina Head Coach Paul Maurice called the hit “dangerous.”. He told reporters, “Gleason made a good move and he caught him with his knee. I don’t know how you want to define the play, but it’s dangerous for both players.”
Ovechkin issued a no-comment to a reporter when boarding the team bus. He also said he was under strict orders from the team management to not discuss either his injury or the hit that led to being ejected from the game. He walked with a limp but was not using crutches and did not have a visible brace.
Standings-wise, the Capitals remained tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for first place in the Eastern Conference in points with 38; although the Penguins had won three more games, the Caps had earned six points for Overtime losses.
Aftermath of the Ovechkin-Gleason Incident
There was talk after the game about whether Boudreau planned to talk to Ovechkin about toning down his aggressive style of play, at least to avoid injuries like the knee injury he had suffered, not to mention avoiding suspension, having previously referred to Ovechkin as “reckless”. In the end, Boudreau said, “I don’t want him to change the way he plays at all. When I said ‘reckless,’ I was using the term in fear of him getting hurt, not him hurting anyone else. He’s got to be him. I don’t want him to change. That’s what makes him three things: one of the best players in the world, one of the best personalities in sports, and the reason you pay to watch guys like Alex.”
Ovechkin was suspended two games for the hit, the first suspension of his NHL career. He also said the suspension would not make him change his aggressive style of play. He told the media after the suspension was announced, “I’m not going to change anything,” When asked about his reaction to the suspension, Ovechkin said, “…maybe it gets me more angry.” When asked if he was worried about the way other players might view him after the hit, Ovechkin said, “No. I don’t care.”
Then-Capitals Captain Chris Clark was asked whether he thought the suspension was fair. Clark said he did not disagree with the NHL’s decision. “Yeah. Even being his teammate, I obviously would like him not to be suspended or miss any time, but I think the circumstances and the timing of it had a lot to do with it. If this had happened at the end of the year, maybe not. Or in the playoffs, maybe not. But I think after successive game misconducts . . . “
Two days later, Ovechkin rejoined his teammates for practice and only wore a neoprene sleeve on his injured right knee. While he was able to do the on-ice drills during practice, he was unable to do so at full tilt. Boudreau commented, “He skated fine out there. He looked like he was skating around out there like he was just angry.”
Boudreau was pleased to see Ovechkin’s progress, but he said he was less than thrilled with the league’s decision to ban his team’s leading scorer through that Saturday’s game in Philadelphia. Boudreau commented, “He made a play that I thought, you could compare it to an awful lot of plays in the NHL so far this year. As [then-Capitals General Manager George McPhee] told me, ‘It was a good hockey play that went wrong.’ That’s, to me, where it should have stayed. But I’m not the boss.”
The feeling in many ways was that the enforced break for Ovechkin was a chance for his knee to heel up fully before his next game.
The Capitals ended up winning the next two games without Ovechkin, beating the Florida Panthers 6-2 at home and beating the Philadelphia Flyers on the road 8-2. One other key piece, Alexander Semin, returned to the lineup after a seven-game absence for those two games.
By Diane Doyle
Washington Post Game Story for 11/30/2009
Washington Post Story on Ovechkin Reaction to Suspension 12/02/2009
Washington Post; McPhee Disagrees With Ovechkin Suspension
Indieweek: Carolina Can’t Beat Ovechkin Less Caps — Lose Joe Corvo in Process
Box Score from Hockey Reference
Box Score from NHL Com