By the midway point of the first period of the Washington Capitals’ eventual win against the New York Rangers on Wednesday, it was apparent that both of the team’s star Russian wingers were energized and involved in the game.
Alex Ovechkin threw his weight around, leveling New York defenseman Dan Girardi and anything else in a white jersey. Then Alexander Semin created one of the best early scoring chances of the contest as he powered down the wing for a backhanded chance, similar to one he scored on later in the game.
Their confidence was visible to their teammates on the bench, as was the fact that the Alexes were keeping their games simple. They used creativity when opportunity presented itself but chipped and chased at the right times too, in accordance with Coach Dale Hunter’s system.
The pair left their offensive mark on the contest, Semin with two goals and Ovechkin with assists on each tally. It was the first game since April 2 in which both recorded a multi-point outing and it offered a reminder of how much of an advantage it is for the Capitals to have both superbly gifted wingers sparking the play.
It’s not a secret. If the Capitals are going to start finding consistency, they need a high level of engagement and adherence to the game plan from Ovechkin and Semin more often than not.
“Ultimately for us, if we want to win a Stanley Cup, we need them going. We need them firing all the pistons and going as much as they were [against New York]. I think they know that,” said Jason Chimera, who leads the team with 13 goals. “Hopefully there can be consistent efforts like that because that’s the way the game’s played.
“Everyone else could be going, but if those two guys are not going our team’s pretty useless,” Chimera continued. “We can chip in goals, but those guys can score when they want to — or so it seems when they’re playing that good. It was nice to see last night.”
Consider that Washington, which is 18-15-2 heading into Friday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center, is 9-0-1 this year when Ovechkin and Semin both record a point but is 0-7-0 when neither records a point in games in which both players are in the lineup.
Given the way that teams target both Ovechkin and Semin with stingy defensive pairings and checking lines, pressuring them from all angles makes their participation in the system that much more important. Making use of their options and making the simple play can minimize their turnovers and create more scoring chances.
Their teammates understand there’s been an adjustment period for everyone, particularly the most skilled names on the roster, but seeing Ovechkin and Semin making the correct choice for the team doesn’t go unnoticed.
“We notice that right away and we love to see that because while they do have the skill to make the play across the blue line, that’s not the system. That’s not what we want to do,” Karl Alzner said. “They’ve been doing a good job, I think, of changing what they need to do to adapt to score. That’s the main thing, we need them to do both.”
For example, on the play that led to Semin’s first goal against the Rangers, Ovechkin stepped up hard against Brad Richards in the neutral zone to force the veteran center to mishandle the puck. Nicklas Backstrom, who has been the Capitals’ most consistent player this season and leads the team with 36 points, gained control of the puck and sent a perfect saucer pass to Semin, who streaked into the zone for a stunning backhand goal. On Semin’s second tally, Ovechkin carried the puck up ice and into the offensive zone. Rather than try to force his way through three Rangers, though, Ovechkin passed to Semin for a shot from the right wing.
It’s not about dumping and chasing the puck on every possession, Ovechkin says, but about making the proper decision for whatever is developing in a particular play.
“You don’t have to chip and chase all the time, you have to read the game. It’s most important thing,” Ovechkin said. “If you’re good hockey player and you have three-on-three or three-on-two you don’t have to chip — you just have to make the play. Of course some situation you have to put puck behind the net and fight through it. . . . Sometimes you have to play simple, sometimes you have to make moves. It all depend on what the score is, what situation is on the ice.”
The value and importance of having Ovechkin and Semin, the countrymen and close friends, in sync and revved up is invaluable. They’re the players that helped make the Capitals such a feared offensive presence in previous seasons that now seem so far away, and while the statistics they will produce is uncertain, they can still command respect from opponents. And Washington can only benefit from it.
“Guys like me, they can be shut down. Guys like that — when they’re going they’re really tough to shut down there’s not too many guys that can skate with them or handle their skill,” Troy Brouwer said. “Our whole team revolves around those guys, whether they’re going or not. When they’re playing their best is when our team is at our best.”
Capitals note: Mike Green skated with the team for the third consecutive day and appears to be inching toward a return to the lineup after missing 21 games with a strained right groin muscle. The team is playing it safe, though, and the defenseman likely won’t return before some time next week. “No need to put myself in a dangerous situation if I’m not ready,” Green said.