Photo: Patrick Smith
Inside the cramped visitor’s locker room at Verizon Center, players, media, and staff played bumper cars, attempting — and sometimes failing — to dodge skates, equipment, and each other. “Oh, sorry,” one player said as he bumped me into a television camera.
“It’s not one of the better visiting locker rooms in the league, but maybe they try to do that for a reason,” former Capitals forward Eric Fehr said.
The room may be the size of a large walk-in closet, but there was another reason for the tight arrangements. The Capitals-Penguins series is the most high profile of the second round. Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby will meet in the playoffs for first time since the 2009 semifinals, an epic series that featured a game with dueling hat tricks and a heartbreaking blowout loss for the Capitals in Game Seven. The media list for Thursday night’s Game One spanned three pages, with large camera crews trucking down from the Great White North.
Since Sid and Ovi last danced in the postseason, Ovechkin was called washed up after a pair of 32-goal seasons (2011 and 2013) and Crosby’s career was threatened by concussions. Now, Ovechkin has just wrapped up his third straight 50-goal season and Crosby finished third in the league in scoring after a torrid pace in the spring.
“It’s good for hockey,” Matt Cullen said. “It’s fun to be a part of it. I think everyone understands the focus on this season and we’re all looking forward to it.”
The Pens, however, will not be looking forward to facing Ovechkin, a six-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner and the regular-season leader in goals (50) and shots (398).
“He’s a guy that likes to have the puck on his stick and it’s dangerous when it’s on his stick,” Brian Dumoulin, a D-man tasked with stopping Ovi, said. “He’s a big guy. He’s not going to shy away from checks. Whether he has the puck or not, he can be effective because he’s such a physical presence also.”
But after years of carrying Washington’s offense, Ovechkin finally has the support he needs throughout the roster. That’s why the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy in a landslide.
“It’s more than just one guy,” Dumoulin said. “He’s a great player when he’s out there, but he’s out there maybe 20 minutes of a game. They have other players that are game changers. They’re just a very deep team this year. We just have to be cautious every shift we’re out there.”
For the first time since the lockout, someone other than Ovi or Nicklas Backstrom led the team in points. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who ranked ninth in the league in points and fourth in assists, proved that he is the quality second-line center the Caps have long needed. TJ Oshie, acquired from Blues last offseason, added 26 goals as the top-line right wing, another position the Capitals where were previously lacking. Meanwhile, John Carlson has three goals and six points in six games this postseason while Andre Burakovsky is blossoming on the third line.
The Penguins have a simple plan to try to stifle all this talent.
“We want to play with [the puck],” defensemen Olli Matta said.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan indicated his team’s forecheck would be key to stopping Ovi one-timers and Oshie dangles by forcing the Capitals to turn the puck over.
“The more pressure we can put on them to spend more time in their end zone and have to defend us and expend energy defending our team, that’s when I think our team is at its best,” Sullivan said of Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals’ weapons. “We’re going to have to be ready to defend hard when the time comes.
Nevertheless, the Penguins are realistic about what they are up against.
“I think the Capitals have so much skill,” Chris Kunitz said. “All four lines can beat you offensively. It’s one of those teams where you can’t key in on any player. You have to respect their whole lineup. I think one of the reasons they’ve been so difficult to play against this year.”
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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