Photo credit: Bruce Bennett
Alex Ovechkin has never made it past the second round of the playoffs. It’s a trite fact, but unavoidable. He’s been in the NHL since 2005, with his window as a primary goal-scorer closing. In 10 years, he has yet to win a Stanley Cup. Some core players around him, like Mike Green, are likely to leave this summer or within the next few years. This may be Ovechkin’s best chance to win a Cup as the undisputed leader of the Washington Capitals. Ovechkin seems to know that. In this year’s Division Final against the Rangers, DC’s captain has put on an astonishing display of talent and dedication, nearly winning games for the Capitals off his play alone. On Saturday, he came up short, but it was another immortal individual performance.
“He’s a force,” coach Barry Trotz said. “No question.”
Midway through the third period, Washington was down 3-1, having just given up a crushing goal to Rangers forward Derick Brassard. Just 90 seconds before Rangers fans were to begin their eight-minute mark “Ovi Sucks! Ovi Sucks! Ovi Sucks!” onslaught, Ovechkin bumbled down the ice with three Rangers on him. He knifed straight through Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, New York’s top defenders, as the two hopelessly whacked at Ovi. Falling to his knees, he let off a perfectly placed wrist shot that went top shelf on Henrik Lundqvist. It was a goal that was nearly impossible to imagine another player in the NHL scoring. It was utter brilliance, under immense pressure, on a huge stage. Save for the cheers of Capitals players, MSG fell silent.
“That’s just unbelievable hockey,” Pierre McGuire said on the live NBC broadcast, giving a dead-on assessment. “There are very few players in the history of this league that could ever do something like that, with that kind of power, that kind of speed, and that kind of finish.”
After the goal, Ovechkin lifted himself to his knees, kissed his glove for his late brother Sergei, and spun like a top to the near corner of the boards as his teammates mobbed him.
Evgeny Kuznetsov used one word to describe the goal: “sick!”
After the celebration, Ovechkin calmly skated to the bench. He had more work to do. The Capitals were still down 3-2.
Driven by a new coach with a focus on maturity and two-way play, Ovechkin has remained the NHL’s top goal scorer while earning respect as a leader and a rounded hockey player. During the postseason, Ovechkin has continued to prove that he is the best goal scorer of his generation. In 19:49 of ice time playing in a deafening (and very shiny) Madison Square Garden in game two, Ovechkin attempted 11 shots on goal, more than any other player in the game.
“It was an unbelievable individual effort,” linemate Joel Ward said of Ovechkin.
In three days, Ovechkin has put on two magisterial performances. In game one of series on Thursday, he let loose a stunning wrist shot that flew to the far corner of the net. Lundqvist, one of league’s elite goalies, had no chance of stopping it. It was the best shooter in the game using his hyper-flexible stick like a hatchet on the Rangers netminder.
In the closing seconds of game one, Ovechkin once again saved the Capitals with solitary skill, determination and smarts. With three seconds left in a tie game, Ovechkin gathered the loose puck behind the Rangers zone. New York assumed the game was headed for a third intermission. But instead, Ovechkin weaved through two defenders to feed the puck to Ward in front, who scored with 1.3 seconds remaining.
Ovechkin’s play on the Ward goal stemmed from an astute understanding of what was going in the game. The Rangers gave up on the play; he did not. Just three years ago, many pundits declared Ovechkin washed up, stuck in his own ways and unwilling to become a better team player. At the time, much of that was true. It isn’t anymore.
“We learned that we can’t fall asleep on number eight,” Brassard said. “We have to play him close every time.”
On Saturday, Ovechkin’s dazzling efforts fell short. The Rangers dominated the Capitals in the first period, putting them in a two-goal hole after 20 minutes. The Rangers have outscored their opponents 7-2 in the first period so far this postseason. During the 82-game regular season campaign, New York bested the opposition by a remarkable 35 goals in the opening frame.
Still, the Caps would rally to within one, finishing with just three fewer shots than the Rangers when the final buzzer sounded. At the end of the game, they had the puck in the Rangers zone for nearly three and a half minutes as shanked shots and deflected passes kept them from sending the game to overtime.
After two games in New York, we know the Capitals can compete with the Presidents’ Trophy winning Rangers. Despite Washington’s poor starts, they split the series in New York against the regular season’s best team. Today, the Capitals are back in the Commonwealth, taking the ice in the late morning. It will be a glorious spring day, with temperatures in the low 80s. You should head to Kettler, watch the boys, and then go out and enjoy this crazy planet of ours while feeling confident in your hockey team. The Caps now have two games in a row in their own, thunderous arena. The next five games will decide who plays in the Eastern Conference Final. The Caps are ready.
“It’s the playoffs,” Braden Holtby said. “It’s not about what happened in the past. You move on.”
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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