On the bench, Adam Oates, Ovechkin’s coach, said to himself: “Oh, no. Not now.”
Relax, for once. The stat sheet shows that a phrase that used to be so familiar around here — Ovechkin scored the game-winning goal on the power play — resurfaced in Sunday’s 3-2 victory over the Sabres. The goal was Ovechkin’s first of the season. The win was the Capitals’ first of the season. Hugs all around, with room to joke about that whiffed empty-netter afterward.
“I knew it was gonna come sooner or later,” Ovechkin said.
Yet it had never taken this long into a season, five games, for Ovechkin to score. Likewise, these Capitals, with four division titles in the past five years, aren’t accustomed to starting 0-3-1, the last team in the NHL to get a win.
So fair or not, Sunday felt like a referendum on the entire season, shortened as it may be. Fail to win even once in the first five games, three of which were at home, and there would be reason to wonder not only if the playoffs were out of the question, but if the days of contending for the Stanley Cup were over before they ever actually contended for one. The focus on Ovechkin, too, would only intensify, as it has the previous two seasons, when his point total fell from 109 in 2009-10 to 85 in ’10-11 to 65 a year ago.
But leave it to old friend Mike Green to serve up Ovechkin’s first goal, a pass to the left circle five minutes into the third period. This was the kind of goal that was once standard around here, Ovechkin timing it perfectly and blasting it powerfully. Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller had little chance. Old-school Ovi.
“He ripped a hard shot,” Oates said afterward. “That’s one of his special talents.”
The puck in the net, Ovechkin punched toward the ice with his left fist, then accepted congratulations. He now has 112 power-play goals in his career. How many have provided this sense of relief?
“From this goal now, you’re going to see his confidence build up,” said newly acquired center Mike Ribeiro, playing just his fifth game as Ovechkin’s teammate. “It’s going to be easier. You’re not going to squeeze [the stick]. You’re not going to think as much. . . .
“Even if you’re confident and ready, just scoring one goal will change the way you’re going to play. It’s not going [through] your mind thinking, ‘Jeez, if I don’t score, then what?’ ”
This is, of course, not just about one goal or one win. It is about sustainability on both counts. For all the groaning about the obsession with Ovechkin’s declining production over the previous two seasons, there is a direct correlation between how much he scores and how frequently the Caps win. Over his eight seasons, he averages 1.6 points per game in Washington’s victories, eight-tenths of a point per game in Washington’s losses.