WASHINGTON - Time to start the MVP talk for Alex Ovechkin, who scored his NHL-leading 28th goal, stood up for a teammate who got rammed into the boards, and led the Washington Capitals to their eighth straight win.
The Capitals also managed to play well with a lead for a change and enjoyed a rare dominating win over a team outside their division. The 5-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night left little doubt that Washington is again a force in the Eastern Conference.
"To get a decisive win against them tonight," forward Troy Brouwer said, "it shows us that we belong where we are."
Jack Hillen, Martin Erat, Marcus Johansson and Brouwer also scored, and Braden Holtby made 29 saves for the Capitals, who remained four points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets atop the Southeast Division with five games to play.
But it was Ovechkin who earned his captain's "C'' against the Maple Leafs. There was his goal — a one-timer from the top of the left circle during a power play. There was his assist — a pass from nearly the same spot that was tipped in by Erat. And there was his don't-mess-with-my-linemate crash into Jay McClement after McClement knocked Nicklas Backstrom head-first into the boards in the first period.
A massive scrum ensued, but only Ovechkin was penalized — for charging — and the Capitals gained momentum by killing the penalty.
"You can hear the crowd, you know?" Ovechkin said. "The guys said they were going to kill it all day long."
Washington's Jason Chimera picked a fight with McClement later in the period, but coach Adam Oates and the rest of the Capitals lauded Ovechkin most for sticking up for Backstrom.
"I just step up for my teammate," Ovechkin said. "And again, I think any one of them would do the same if it were happening to me."
Ovechkin also said the team made sure to talk about the need to "play for a win" after taking a 4-0 lead. The Capitals blew a four-goal lead in their previous game and needed overtime to pull out the victory.
Put it all together, and Oates was more than ready to make the case for Ovechkin to reclaim the MVP trophy the Russian forward won in 2008 and 2009.
"I'm obviously very biased about that, so my answer would be, yeah, absolutely," Oates said. "Obviously, Sidney Crosby is another candidate, for sure. He had such a scoring lead. But I think you've got to factor in the fact that he's missed a lot of games. ... Alex has really led our team. You see it every night now."
The Capitals have been feasting on the weak Southeast, going 14-3 within the division, but they entered Tuesday's game just 9-14-2 against the rest of the East. All but two of those nine wins were by one goal.
So it was a major morale boost that they were able to manhandle Toronto, which is closing in on the franchise's first playoff berth since 2004.
The Maple Leafs had won four of five, but they looked sluggish one night after they beat the New Jersey Devils 2-0 at home on Monday. Toronto was down 4-0 to the Capitals before Mikhail Grabovski scored in the third period.
"It looked like we had nothing in the tank, nothing to give," Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "We weren't playing anywhere near the level which was required."
McClement said his hit on Backstrom wasn't malicious.
"I was just back-checking on him, and it looked like he went in pretty awkwardly," McClement said. "I'm definitely not that kind of player."
The Capitals drew their usual close-to-full house, with fans seemingly undeterred by the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday. Security was increased at the Verizon Center, although mostly behind-the-scenes and so subtly that many noticed little or no difference as they endured the usual bags searches and screenings by hand-held metal detectors.
Arena workers said there were extra security patrols, specifically checking trash cans and security cameras before the building was open to the public. The huge scoreboard went dark shortly before the opening faceoff for a moment of silence.
Ovechkin, with his 19th goal in 18 games, moved two ahead of Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos in the NHL's goal-scoring race, although Stamkos pulled back within one when he scored against the Jets later in the evening.
"He's very lethal, very dynamic and energetic out there," Toronto defenceman Mark Fraser said of Ovechkin. "Everyone on the ice knows when he's on the ice, that's just his presence. ... When he's determined, he's a force to stop."
NOTES: Maple Leafs LW Joffrey Lupul returned after missing five games with a concussion. ... Erat's goal was his first since he was acquired in a trade-deadline deal with the Nashville Predators.
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