The Washington Capitals aren’t big believers in easy.
Given that they are playing their 39th season in the NHL and have yet to win a Stanley Cup, that may be stating the obvious. But it goes beyond that.
Most nights when the Caps win, it isn’t easy. Even Friday night, when they absolutely destroyed the Philadelphia Flyers by a 7-0 score, they had to endure an ugly fight that culminated with their goalie getting beaten to a pulp because he had no interest in fighting. Making matters worse, the NHL took no action against the Flyers or Ray Emery, the Philadelphia goalie who was more interested in throwing punches than stopping pucks.
Tuesday night’s 6-2 victory over the defenseless New York Islanders was an exception to the rule: one of those rare nights when, even after a slow start, the Caps asserted their will against an inferior team. The Islanders are no longer awful — they did make the playoffs last season for the first time in six years, and they have a wonderful player in John Tavares.
But their defense isn’t very good, to put it kindly, and 37-year-old goalie Evgeni Nabokov has seen much better days, also putting it kindly. Playing at home, with Alex Ovechkin back in the lineup and buzzing all over the ice from the start, the Caps looked like a team ready to get on a little bit of a roll after a decidedly mediocre 5-7 start.
General Manager George McPhee was eloquent in describing his team’s early-season play after it skated off trailing 1-0 after one period.
“Ehh,” he said when asked what he thought of his team’s play to date.
Then he paused. “I do see some signs though. Mike [Green] hasn’t got a goal, but he’s been playing better. Marcus [Johansson] hasn’t gotten one, but you feel as if he gets one, he’ll get on a roll and everyone might get on one. And Ovi looks fresh out there.”
McPhee’s thoughts proved prescient once the second period began. Kyle Okposo, who had assisted on Tavares’s first-period goal, assisted on the Caps’ first goal — handing the puck right to John Carlson skating into the slot. If Okposo had been trying to set Carlson up, he couldn’t have done a better job.
That opened the floodgates. By the time the period was over, the Caps had a 5-2 lead, Johansson had his first goal and, just for good measure, 19-year-old rookie Tom Wilson — McPhee’s pet project this fall — had his first NHL point. Ovechkin had two goals — both on the power play. By the time the night was over, Wilson had added his first NHL goal — also on the power play — on a pretty feed from Ovechkin. The Islanders were reduced to end-game cheap shots, clearly brought on by the frustration of being dominated for the last 40 minutes. The Caps scored four power-play goals in all and appeared to be playing with an extra man even when they weren’t. They were that good. The Islanders were that bad.
The only thing that could have made the night any better was a goal by Green.
“Our best effort start to finish all season,” Coach Adam Oates said. “It was probably our best first period, even though they scored a goal.” He paused. “It looked a little bit like last year out there.”
He was referring, of course, to the way the Caps played during the second half of last season after they adapted to his coaching style and system and Ovechkin was reborn as a star playing the right wing. The Caps looked a lot better than “ehh” the last two periods. Of course, after playing Minnesota at home on Thursday, they have a weekend trip to Phoenix and Colorado.
That trip should give Oates and McPhee a good read on where the team is right now.
Where Ovechkin is right now is back in superstar mode. When he is at his best the way he was Tuesday, he appears to have no position at all. He’s a little bit like the old Bugs Bunny baseball cartoon where the ubiquitous rabbit plays everywhere. On Tuesday, it must have appeared to the Islanders as if there were five No. 8s on the ice. If Ovechkin wasn’t slamming someone in white into the boards, he was feeding the slot or making the hapless New York defenders look like they were skating uphill as he wheeled around them.
The highlight of the evening, at least to all those in uniform, was Wilson’s third-period goal. Oates put him on the power play because the game was in hand and he figured it would be good experience for him, especially given his limited minutes so far. When Wilson took Ovechkin’s pass and put it behind Nabokov, the first person there to hug him was the guy who had put the puck on his stick.
Wilson sounded very much like the teenager he is as he stood in the middle of the locker room talking about how much it meant to have Ovechkin be the one to set up his first NHL goal. As he spoke, he was interrupted by — you guessed it — Ovechkin, sneaking up behind him with a large handful of blue shaving cream.
As the shaving cream covered his face, Wilson was clearly in pain, yelling, “My eyes, it’s burning my eyes!”
When it was clear he needed some help, Caps PR boss Sergey Kocharov stepped in and led Wilson by the arm back to the training area.
“He’s day-to-day,” Kocharov joked as Wilson disappeared.
A few minutes later, Wilson was back, still blinking but apparently okay.
Even on a rare easy night, it wasn’t as easy as it looked for the Caps. It almost never is.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.