Extra-motivated Alex Ovechkin inspires Capitals to victory

Alex Ovechkin earns his 22nd career hattrick after scoring on an empty net against the Maple Leafs.

TORONTO – “If I score tonight, it will be for you.”

That was Alex Ovechkin’s promise to 13-year-old Alex Luey, a cancer survivor, hockey player, and special guest of the Washington Capitals Saturday night at Air Canada Centre.

Tearing a page from the Babe Ruth playbook before tearing his way through the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ovechkin authored the kind of Hollywood story young Luey will remember forever, leading the Capitals to a 4-2 victory and extending their win streak to three.

Luey plays youth hockey for the Niagara Falls Flyers. He was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, the now-curable form of bone cancer that took Terry Fox from us. Luey underwent rotationplasty and had a portion of his right leg amputated so he could keep playing the sport he loves. Since being equipped with a prosthetic, little Alex has returned to the ice.

Inspired by Luey’s courage, Ovechkin invited Luey, an Ovie superfan, to this game a month ago on Hometown Hockey. Underneath his Caps cap, the kid broke down in tears. Little did he know the invite was just the beginning.

Prior to puck drop, Washington coach Barry Trotz escorted Luey, draped in a red No. 8 sweater, into the visitors’ dressing room to announce the starting lineup.

“I give Alex [Luey] all the credit for the win. He got the guys pumped up before the game,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. “He brought it. I usually call out the lineup, and he changed it. He had all their positions and had some add-ons to it.”

Ovechkin chatted with Luey during warm-ups and dedicated a goal that had yet to exist.

With both Toronto and Washington a tad ragged after traveling to the city late Friday night after their respective victories, the Leafs returned from their mini road trip vowing a more aggressive start and a simplified pucks-on-net approach. They were tired of getting outshot.

To that end, the Leafs delivered, controlling the possession battle (56-43 in attempts and 29-21 shots on net) and pressuring their visitors with frenzied action around Brayden Holtby’s crease. Mitchell Marner drew an early hooking penalty from Devante Smith-Pelly by charging to the net, but a suddenly chilly Leafs power play failed to make good.

Then karma and fate conspired to touch Hockey Fights Cancer Night.

As Leafs Nation began booing Ovechkin, their playoff nemesis seven months ago, in the first period, he gathered the puck at his own blue line, darted through the neutral zone, then wristed one past Curtis McElhinney low-blocker off the rush, using defenceman Morgan Rielly as a screen.

“Sometimes, you’re just feeling it,” said Ovechkin, smiling. “Back to 19 years old. Flying, make a move, a shot… sometimes you feel great.”

In celebration of his 574th goal — a wonderful solo effort that hopped him over no less than Hall of Famer Mike Bossy to rank 21st on the NHL’s all-time goals list — Ovechkin pointed up to Luey and his family in the stands. The kid told the hockey star where he’s be sitting.

“It’s history,” Ovechkin said.

With 55 seconds remaining in the first, Ron Hainsey committed a puck-over-glass penalty, and Ovechkin blasted a slap shot right through McElhinney on the ensuing face-off.

“He touched it twice and shot it in the net twice,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock.

Two for Luey.

“When Big 8’s going, he pulls the team with him,” T.J. Oshie beamed. “It wasn’t only all the goals. He was working, he was fore-checking, he was hitting. When he does all that, there’s not many guys in the world that can keep up.”

Midway through the second frame, a jet-powered Jakub Vrana breezed by Nikita Zaitsev, Toronto’s last man back, hunted down a puck chipped down-ice by Oshie and beat McElhinney on a breakaway to extend Washington’s lead to 3-zip.

“[Vrana] has got so much talent, so much strength, and when he’s going, he’s hard to stop,” Oshie said of his rookie linemate. “Zaitsev is not a bad skater.”

If it all felt over, you don’t know Leafs games.

Toronto awoke in the third period with a pair of goals from their blue line, Jake Gardiner and Zaitsev, pressuring Washington, pulling McElhinney and keeping the crowd on its collective seat-edge the rest of the ride.

The Leafs dominated zone time from starter’s pistol to the finish line, but the game-breaker was wearing red and white.

Guess who scored the empty-netter to complete the hat trick?

Yep, it was a fine night to be named Alex.

“It’s incredible what he did for me, what he did for the team,” said Luey, sitting next to his hero on the dressing room bench to share in the post-game interviews. “It’s just… awesome.”

Ovechkin draped his Hockey Night in Canada towel over his admirer’s shoulders. Ovie signed the helmet, stick and gloves he used to set the franchise record for hat tricks (20) and handed them all to Luey. He chatted and posed for pictures with the family. The Capitals awarded Luey their Player of the Game helmet.

“He lights up when he gets that opportunity to share a bit of Alex Ovechkin with a kid. There’s a kid inside of Alex with the way he celebrates goals. There’s a bond, and he’s got a big heart,” Trotz said.

“In our business sometimes we take ourselves way too seriously. These are priceless moments for a young man that you don’t always get.”

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