"They pretty much took it to us the whole game," Steckel said. "I mean, that's the bottom line. I thought we could have played better, but to their credit, they prevented us from playing pretty well."
Until a tripping call on Todd Bertuzzi set the Capitals' comeback in motion.
"Stupid, stupid penalty by me," Bertuzzi said. "Just careless with my stick at the wrong time, then they come back and score right away. It was pretty deflating."
Backstrom erased a 2-1 Red Wings lead by taking Alex Ovechkin's pass and skating by Brad Stuart in the left circle before beating Chris Osgood from close range on a power play with 6:45 left. Steckel won it with a deflection of Alexander Semin's shot less than a minute later, an unlikely turn of events for a guy hardly considered a scoring threat.
"When you get in games like that, your fourth line is vital, whether it's create energy with a hit or score a timely goal," Steckel said. "We were fortunate that we did two of those tonight."
"That's probably the best I've seen [Theodore]," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I'm watching him and going, this must have been how he won the Vezina and the Hart in Montreal that year. Without him, it could have very well been 6-0 after the first period."
"We basically, in my opinion, dominated from start to finish tonight," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "They're an opportunistic team and they have a real good offensive flair. They were able to capitalize."
By controlling the game with a smothering puck-possession offense, particularly in the opening 20 minutes, the Red Wings made it difficult for Washington's high-octane forwards to gain traction.
"We were able to spend a lot of time in their zone and create a lot of chances that way," Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom said.
The Capitals, who had scored four or more goals in seven straight games, were unable to generate any early offense against Osgood, who made his first start since Dec. 20. The Red Wings failed on two first-period power plays and piled up an early 13-0 edge in shots before Backstrom got Washington's first two chances, a couple of in-close whacks with about 5½ minutes left in a scoreless first period.
"It was like men versus boys," Boudreau said. "I don't think we touched the puck and they came out with a vengeance. I'm thinking that this is what Stanley Cup champions that are desperate do."
Theodore stopped the Red Wings' first 20 shots before Cleary batted in his 10th goal from a tough angle to the left of the net 4:17 into the second period. Cleary had whiffed on Valtteri Filppula's pass in front, but the puck squirted out to him and he angled a shot off Theodore's right arm as the goalie slid on his back into the net.
Bradley tied it at 18:05, as Washington turned two long passes into a goal. Mike Green sent a pass from just inside the Capitals' blue line to Boyd Gordon, stationed along the left-wing boards in the Detroit zone. Gordon led Bradley, who got a step on Jonathan Ericsson and beat Osgood from deep in the slot.
Tied after two periods, Theodore was happy to turn a one-sided affair into a 20-minute battle.
"We knew if I had a solid 20 minutes, we could win the game and that's what we did," he said. "We found a way to beat what I think is one of the top teams in the league."
Rafalski put Detroit up with 8:53 left in the third after two Capitals collided trying to clear the puck along the boards. Filppula collected the loose puck and fed Rafalski, who connected from the top of the right circle.
- Washington improved to 17-3-3 at home.
- Green's assist extended his point-scoring streak to nine games, matching his season and career high. Ovechkin has points in nine straight games.
- Osgood's only action in Detroit's previous 12 games was 31 minutes in relief of Jimmy Howard in a 6-0 loss to the New York Islanders on Jan. 12.
- Earlier Tuesday, the Capitals recalled D Karl Alzner from Hershey of the AHL.
- Washington was without D Brian Pothier (undisclosed injury) for a third straight game and D John Erskine (upper-body injury) for a fifth consecutive game.