Maple Leafs’ Mike Babcock on Capitals: They still think we’re kids

Alex Ovechkin scored his 40th goal of the season and the Washington Capitals defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in Annapolis at the NHL Stadium Series game.

ANNAPOLIS, MD. — Those fireworks that explode and then explode a second time into smaller fireworks, they streaked the black sky with fiery webs of red, white and blue.

Hockey players were escorted by bagpipes to a pristine, windswept rink positioned on a 35,760-square-foot graphic of an aircraft carrier, itself situated in the centre of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

A smartly creased military marching band’s brass instruments sang and gleamed under four thick poles of football stadium lights as tall and bright as a boy thinks his heroes are. They beamed like they’d never dim.

"U-S-A! U-S-A!" group chants popped up here and there, as did members of the national women’s team, gold medallions swaying form their necks.

Two Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets zinged overhead, one piloted by a former midshipman/goalie at the U.S. Naval Academy, and they shook a packed house like a windstorm just as "The Star-Spangled Banner" hit its final note and the 500 service members lining rink’s perimeter lowered their salutes.

It was National Anthem Day, after all.

"If you’re a North American, this one’s more special just because of the men and women that look after you and give you all the privileges you have in your life by keeping you safe and living in a democracy," Toronto coach Mike Babcock said.

"You think about heroes, there’s lots of different heroes in your lifetime. But people that put themselves in harm’s way to look after you, those are the heroes. So, I think that’s important while we’re here we understand that and recognize that."

And so it was that sometime after Team USA’s Olympic-gold-medal-winning skip John Shuster delivered the ceremonial puck by curling a rock from the high slot smack on the centre-ice button and the Toronto Maple Leafs were photographed in custom uniforms whiter than the ice, hockey happened. And the vast majority of it happened in the Leafs’ end.

More motivated, better prepared and hungrier for points, the Washington Capitals torpedoed their visitors 5-2 at Saturday’s Stadium Series tilt between last spring’s playoff foes and remain undefeated (3-0) in the out-of-doors.

"It doesn’t matter that the ice is bad. The atmosphere is unbelievable," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. "You have energy from the fans and you go and play."

Its nautical theme aside, the NHL’s 25th outdoor regular-season game was like all the others in that it wasn’t like all the others.

High-alert winds prevented either side from practising on the Annapolis ice Friday and Saturday morning, so there was no time for players to acclimatize themselves with the dead boards, hard ice or skewed sightlines.

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When (finally) reasonable 35 km/h gusts blew the fireworks smoke to Baltimore and the puck dropped on a 6 degrees Celsius night, Toronto starter Frederik Andersen appeared to be the elements’ greatest victim.

There was much pre-game talk among players and coaches of keeping things simple, of wading into the unusual setting to get a feel first. Frequently these outdoor games have been light on scoring.

But once Leafs’ defenceman Travis Dermott took the game’s first penalty, Washington’s lethal power play pounced.

Evgeny Kuznetsov slammed home a rebound, setting off a second round of pyrotechnics. Crease-crashing Zach Hyman evened the score 90 seconds later, but once Ovechkin answered back 59 seconds after that, Washington never looked back.

Ovechkin’s 40th of the year, a high-glove snipe on Andersen from the slot, gave him 598 on the career. Fun fact: Ovie has now scored an NHL goal in 38 different venues.

"The power play helped us a lot to get into the game. We feel the puck more than our opponents," Ovechkin said. "Forty is nice, but 50’s better. I still have time to do that."

All the Capitals’ big boys piled in on the fun, delighting the thousands who pulled their replica sweaters over top of their winter coats.

Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson each had themselves three-point games. Goaltender Braden Holtby limited the damage after a shaky February.

By the time Jakub Vrana scored the home side’s fifth goal on its 25th shot, Babcock yanked Andersen for the first time all season on account of poor performance.

"The lights were kinda glaring off the fresh ice, which was a bit difficult as far as vision goes," Nazem Kadri explained. "I’m sure for the goaltenders as well."

With Curtis McElhinney in net, the Leafs stopped the bleeding, but it was too late — and there was no pushback.

Lights out.

No. Literally, those sky-scraping stadium lights — all but a few bulbs — lost power when the switch-sides horn sounded halfway through the third period. Snack-fetching fans only found their seats by the glow of the Leafs’ uniforms, bleached to luminescence.

"The lights going out — that was probably the most entertaining part," Kadri said. "I thought it was just an effect because it was right at the 10-minute mark when we were switching sides. I thought it was part of the gig."

Not at all, but the Caps (and the naval academy’s house DJ) rolled with it.

"Perfect timing," beamed Capitals winger T.J. Oshie, one of the game’s few outdoors rookies.

"It seemed like things were dying down a little bit. We got the outage, and we got a small little concert there. I don’t know whose playlist was running, but they found us some good jams. The crowd got into it. The phone lights came out. Me and a couple of the fellas were jamming on the bench."

The break dragged long enough that NBC pushed its prime-time viewership to NBCSN to catch the conclusion of the game in favour of the local 11 p.m. news.

When power was restored and the Capitals secured victory, the locals — the target audience for these NHL mega-spectacles — left happier if a little colder than they arrived. That feeling was shared by half the players.

“When you’re skating on a pond or you’re skating outside,” Oshie said, "it turns into pure joy and fun."

As for the Leafs, they’ve now dropped three straight without superstar Auston Matthews in the lineup, and deserved this loss, regardless of pomp or circumstance.

"We knew it was a big night. They look at us and they still think we’re kids. It looked like we were kids here tonight. I thought they smacked us around," said Babcock, cancelling Sunday’s off-day as the clock neared midnight.

"We’ll be practising tomorrow. The work we didn’t put in today we’ll be putting in tomorrow and get back on track here.

"A way better memory is an opportunity when you win."


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