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Get Cooking Or Taste Defeat

By Mike Wise
Thursday, April 23, 2009

NEW YORK

It's not Alex Ovechkin's fault Henrik Lundqvist is so spectacular in goal. It's not Ovie's fault Alexander Semin is toying with the puck instead of just firing the dumb thing. It's certainly not his bad when a splendid, 20-year-old kid in net for Washington finally makes a boo-boo that matters.

But Ovie is the face of the Capitals, the most gifted force in the game who is hardly a reticent star while checking his flammable stick after a goal, celebrating beyond the allowable norms of old-school purists. His mug is on the buses. He's the one in the Hair Cuttery and Eastern Motors commercials, not Tom Poti or Viktor Kozlov.

And so if Washington ultimately goes down to a Rangers team it was picked to beat in five or six games by people who know a lot more about this game than I -- and that seems probable after Wednesday night's 2-1 loss at Madison Square Garden -- Alex Ovechkin also has to live with the knowledge that the best player in the NHL has yet to advance his team to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

For all of his intoxicating numbers and surreal goals, he hasn't been to the Eastern Conference semifinals. He has yet to accomplish what his peer, Cup finalist Sidney Crosby, is again on the verge of doing in Pittsburgh. You get the feeling Ovechkin would gladly trade two Hart Trophy awards for one second-round playoff appearance?

"You think this series is over?" he said coldly to a MSG Network host, whom Ovie felt implied the Capitals were going home after falling behind three games to one to New York. The manner in which he responded reflected everything about his ultra-competitive, we-will-not-lose demeanor, and in truth he did nearly everything he could to avert defeat in a jolting and increasingly intense Game 4.

In fact, at the exact moment the sentence, "Alex Ovechkin is going to win his second Hart Trophy in a row in June, but how long before he gets his first goal in this series?" was typed, Ovie managed to do just that.

A rocket, launched 30 to 35 feet from the net, catching a nearly flawless Lundqvist off guard, making the Garden groan loudly for the moment.

Yet the still maturing Russian known as the Great 8, smothered by blue jerseys since last Wednesday, had been less than zero in the scoring column up before that shot.

He is not on the precipice of becoming the Tracy McGrady of the NBA -- an all-star veteran whose team has never advanced past the first round. And it should be noted that LeBron James will have the ball in his hands many more times over 40-plus minutes of a 48-minute NBA game than Ovechkin would have the puck in 28 minutes of ice time of Game 4, less than half an NHL regulation game. (In point of fact, most keen observers of the Caps would say that might be five minutes too much ice time for Ovie.)

With almost 18 minutes left Wednesday night, the Capitals as urgent as they've been this season, about to fall behind by the same margin they should be up in this series, Ovie lit the lamp and pulled Washington to 2-1.

He dinged the post on a power play nearly 10 minutes later, and against his infectious energy, the Rangers and Lundqvist had to hold off a virtual onslaught those final few minutes.

But bottom line: When they withstood that barrage, they were one game away from forcing the most complete hockey player in the world to clear out his locker before May for the second straight season.

Last season was excusable -- young team on a surreal ride toward an unlikely playoff berth clinched on the regular season's last day, suddenly finding itself amid the madness of a frothing Philadelphia crowd and a Flyers team who wanted it just a bit more.

But these Rangers have no business holding a commanding lead on a team this offensively potent, even with Peter Parker in net, ready to spring and once again save the citizenry of New York -- or at least the knuckleheads in Section 427 of the blue seats. Ovie and his team have no excuses about youth and inexperience this time.

Ovie has indeed been smothered, not given the angles and straight lines and diversions in front of the net he needs to be an effective goal-scorer. But he has missed some glorious chances along with the rest of the Caps. And suddenly this record-setting team that twirled the District on its sticks from October through the spring is looking much more desperate than dangerous.

Midway through the second period, trailing 2-0, Bruce Boudreau was becoming concerned enough that for the first time in the postseason he put Nicklas Backstrom and Semin on the first line with Ovechkin. The coach needed scoring. Now. Before the Garden could chant, "HEN-REE! HEN-REE!" one more time for that godsend in goal.

The kid was good for the Capitals. Simeon Varlamov -- who lately goes by "Gnarly Varly," my personal favorite, "From Russia With Glove," or simply "Simeon the Sensational" -- was brilliant in the first period even with a deflected goal that sailed past him. But he had one pivotal mistake. He couldn't hold on to a Chris Drury try in the second period, and Drury put it back for the 2-0 cushion that put Washington on its heels the rest of the night.

Game 5 is usually the bellwether moment of any seven-game series, but something about how this series has been played made Game 4 feel paramount going in. A Rangers' victory nullified being shut out in Game 3 and made a shaken Caps team have to implausibly win three straight.

If Washington had tied it, Ovechkin and his linemates would have shown New York that, really, when they care as much as the Rangers, the Caps' talent is too rich and deep not to overcome the passion of the club John Tortorella remade at the end of the regular season.

Ovechkin has been good but not quite tremendous the past four games. For all the laser beams fired, he has one goal in 12 periods. It's getting late, maybe too late for the Great 8 to pull off one more pulsating finish.

"You think this series is over?" he asked.

No, but if the best player in the game wants to single-handedly rescue his team from the throes of another one-and-done postseason, well, now might be a good time to start.

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