The first-round NHL playoff series that returns to Verizon Center on Friday night will have a distinctly different feel than when it left. Last Saturday evening, the Washington Capitals were in control, having beaten the New York Rangers in each of the first two games, getting a goal from Alex Ovechkin in the opener and an overtime assist from him in the second. In those two games, Ovechkin was everywhere, firing 12 shots, looking like the Hart Trophy candidate he is.
But over the next two games in New York — a pair of narrow and frustrating 4-3 losses – Ovechkin, at least statistically, evaporated. He managed all of three shots, just one in Wednesday’s Game 4. He struggled to find space against ever-present Rangers defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. He did not score a point. And now, the Capitals’ advantage is gone, the momentum has shifted, and the series is tied.
“Our line have to create chances,” Ovechkin said Thursday following practice, throwing linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson into the equation. “And last game, I don’t think we create lots of opportunity for our line, and everybody knows Backie, me and JoJo have to play better. We have the most minutes on the ice. We have to have at least 10 shots a night.”
Thursday, they combined for four.
This is, of course, a convenient and easy story line — the star didn’t score, and the team lost two games, so there must be a direct link between the two. The fact of the matter is that the Capitals managed to put six pucks behind outstanding Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in two games, and as Washington Coach Adam Oates said Thursday, “Three goals is a lot of goals in our league.”
Still, there has long been a chicken-and-egg element to the argument about Ovechkin’s performance and its relationship to results: Do the Capitals have success because he produces, or does Ovechkin produce because the team is playing well? Either way, the numbers are stark. This year, in 52 games that include the first four of the playoffs, Washington is 20-5 when Ovechkin scores a goal, 8-19 when he doesn’t. When he notches at least one point, the Capitals are 25-9. When he doesn’t, they are 4-14. (All totals include overtime and shootout losses.)
“They all understand when we win, they get a lot of praise,” defenseman Karl Alzner said of the top line. “When we lose, they get harped on. It’s just the way it is as a top player. They fully understand that. It’s hard. Every team adjusts to them.”
Ovechkin and the Capitals, now, must adjust back. One problem, as Oates pointed out: McDonagh and Girardi each played roughly half of Game 4 — McDonagh 31 minutes 29 seconds, Girardi 29:35. It’s hard to find moments during which Ovechkin might escape them. “Pretty much every faceoff in their own end,” Oates said, “those two guys are on the ice.”
So Ovechkin said he must do a better job of gathering the puck in the neutral zone and creating his own opportunities with speed. He said in the first two games of the series, he had the necessary time and space to gather speed and bring a formidable rush into the Rangers’ end. In New York, that went away.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know why, but in the Rangers [rink], I don’t think our line create some opportunities for me, for Jo Jo and for Backy as well, to find that kind of space, especially in the neutral zone,” Ovechkin said. “Maybe we just handle the puck too long. Maybe we try to make some cute plays, but we just have to play simple, especially in the neutral zone.”
Maybe we try to make some cute plays, but we just have to play simple, especially in the neutral zone.”
Ovechkin — who Thursday was nominated by the NHL Players’ Association for the Ted Lindsay Award, given annually to the league’s most outstanding player — was caught looking a bit frustrated as the Rangers scored what ended up being the decisive fourth goal. As Derek Stepan tipped Ryan Callahan’s pass below the goal line to Carl Hagelin, who gave the puck back to a wide-open Stepan across the crease, Ovechkin cruised in behind the play, drifting. Had he skated hard, he might have marked Stepan.
Thursday, Ovechkin said of Stepan’s goal, “We missed the battle at the blue line.” He did not address what could have been seen as a lousy effort on his part, but he did point out that when the Capitals clear those pucks out of the zone, they can get their offensive stars going.
“Of course, they’re good ‘D,’ ” he said. “But if we have full speed, it’s pretty hard to stop me or JoJo or Backie, especially one-on-one.”
Not Ovechkin nor Johansson nor Backstrom has been able to break free for many one-on-one situations the past two games. Still, Oates isn’t looking for a complete overhaul in structure or strategy. He said he spoke with Ovechkin on Thursday, and the message wasn’t about how to react or adjust. Rather, it was a reminder of how he had played since mid-March, when he closed the season by scoring 23 goals in the Capitals’ final 23 games.
“Continue to play good,” Oates said he told his star. “They’re a good team over there, too. It’s playoff hockey. Sometimes, that happens — you get a point-free game or two. And then all of a sudden you go on a four-game streak. That’s playoff hockey. To me, his job is just to continue to play good.”
Which is a simple strategy that fits into a simple formula: When Ovechkin plays well, the Capitals normally win. And to push that formula further into the playoffs, they must now win twice in the next three games.