By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009
Alex Ovechkin, by his coach's admission, wasn't very good for the first 40 minutes of the Washington Capitals' matinee meeting yesterday with the Detroit Red Wings. But Bruce Boudreau kept "throwing him back out there" in the hope the reigning league MVP would make "something positive happen."
Then, right on cue, that's exactly what Ovechkin did.
He broke a tied game with a highlight-reel goal with 7 minutes 8 seconds left, then chipped in a layup 76 seconds later to lead the Capitals to a 4-2 victory over the slumping Stanley Cup champions at sold-out Verizon Center, where they improved to an Eastern Conference-best 20-3-1.
"Alex is one of those big-game guys," Boudreau said. "That's why he's leading the league in goals in the third period."
Ovechkin's 17 goals (of a league-leading 33) in the final period are six more than anyone else and the 23-year-old Russian's seven game-winners are tied for second in the league. His goals yesterday snapped a two-game losing streak and extended Detroit's season-long slide to five games.
"That's when his game rises," defenseman Tom Poti said. "He gets some huge goals for us. He's one of the most special players to ever play this game and he'll always be a clutch guy who scores big goals."
Asked about his penchant for producing goals in the clutch, Ovechkin said: "I don't know; maybe it's luck. The first two periods I did not have a lot of chances and I was kind of sleepy. I skated around and missed the puck and felt kind of frustrated. I had more chances in the third period, and scoring the goal helped me."
Mike Green and Viktor Kozlov also scored for the Capitals, while goaltender José Theodore made 27 saves and Nicklas Backstrom, skating on the second line instead of his usual spot next to Ovechkin, recorded a pair of pretty assists. Green's goal, his 14th, moved him into a tie for the league lead among defensemen with Nashville's Shea Weber.
"We [rose] to the occasion," Green said. "We had been waiting all week for this game."
The wait for Ovechkin to find his game finally ended late in the third period.
With the game tied at 2, Ovechkin took a pass from Kozlov, tapped the puck between his skates like a crossover dribble in basketball, broke in on Ty Conklin (23 saves) and wowed the 18,277 on hand with his stickwork. Kozlov started the game on the third line but was moved to Ovechkin's unit at the start of the third.
Before the buzz in the divided crowd -- there weren't as many Red Wings fans in attendance as past seasons but they still turned out in force -- had died down, Ovechkin, marked all game by top defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, was celebrating a second goal, this one on the power play, the Capitals' first in three games.
"I don't think Ovie dominated the game," Detroit Coach Mike Babcock said. "But they pay him to score, and that's what he did at the end."
After a scoreless but well-played and entertaining first 18 minutes, each team found the net in the closing moments of the opening period. Ville Leino, who was recalled yesterday because of the injuries to Henrik Zetterberg (back spasms) and Tomas Holmstrom (groin), scored his first NHL goal at 18:06 on his first shot after racing into the Capitals' zone, cutting to the slot and slipping the puck -- with his back to the goal -- past Theodore to put the Red Wings ahead 1-0.
The Capitals, though, wasted little time answering.
Fifty-seven seconds after Leino's goal, Capitals defenseman Milan Jurcina, who has one of the hardest shots in the league, unloaded a blast from the point into traffic, where the puck struck Kozlov and eluded a screened Conklin to send the game into the second period tied at 1.
The second period went much the way the first did: plenty of action early, then a goal for each team late. Green scored from the slot at 17:19 to put the Capitals ahead 2-1 thanks to a pass by Backstrom, who was tripped by Valtteri Filppula but steered the puck to Green while sliding prone on the ice.
"I just had to score the goal," Green joked of Backstrom's effort.
But that lead didn't last because of another bad penalty assessed to Alexander Semin. Talented yet immature at times, Semin was whistled for hooking with 1:25 remaining, and then Johan Franzen banged in a ricocheted pass, extending the Capitals' string of allowing at least one power play goal to 10 games.
The penalty kill, however, more than made up for that bad-break goal in closing seconds of the third as the Capitals clung to a 4-2 lead.
With 1:38 remaining, Kozlov was banished for hooking, then 13 seconds later, Brooks Laich was sent off for delay of game (puck over glass), leaving the Capitals facing a 6-on-3. In those final seconds, Poti was credited with three blocked shots while Jeff Schultz and David Steckel each had one.
"Our PK might not be that good, but we're real good six on three," Boudreau joked. "It showed sacrifice. We came together as a team. Everyone was blocking shots and doing whatever it took to preserve the win. That was nice to see."