Ovechkin blames himself for Caps' playoff-opening loss

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post staff writer
Saturday, April 17, 2010

Late Thursday night, as he stood in front of his locker in nothing more than a towel, a gold chain and a Capitals baseball cap, Alex Ovechkin sighed deeply and said, "It's okay, it's just one game." He may have said it to convince the throng of media crowded around him -- and by extension, Capitals fans -- that all would be well despite an overtime loss to underdog Montreal in the opening game of what is expected to be a long playoff run. But with that phrase, uttered more loudly than the mumbles that preceded it, Ovechkin sounded very much like a man trying to convince himself.

"He's as hard as anybody on himself," said veteran winger Mike Knuble, one of Ovechkin's linemates. "He doesn't dance around, doesn't make excuses. He just says, 'I have to play better.' "

If there was a central theme that emerged from Friday's regroup-and-move-on practice session in Arlington, it was that: For all the talk about how playoff series are won by doing the little things right, stars must be stars, and Ovechkin, the league's reigning two-time MVP, cannot go without a shot -- much less a point or a goal -- very often if the Capitals expect to eliminate Montreal and advance to the second round and beyond.

"I didn't play my game at all last night," Ovechkin said Friday. "It's not about Montreal. It's all about me."

The Ovechkin watch Friday bordered on overkill, particularly considering the Capitals lost the first two games at home a year ago to the New York Rangers before coming back to win the series in seven. Washington Coach Bruce Boudreau, who issued a harsh assessment of his star's performance immediately following the game, was asked nine consecutive Ovechkin-related questions to open a heavily attended, post-practice media session. The theories about why Ovechkin went without a shot on net for the first time in his 22 career playoff games -- he did have five attempts blocked and missed three others wide -- were all over the map.

His health? "I'm good," Ovechkin said. But, it was pointed out, his personal trainer is in town. "He [is] always here, like three, four years in a row" in the postseason, Ovechkin said. What about the burden of the captaincy, which he took on midway through the season? "I didn't think when I'm on the ice, 'I'm the captain; I have to do something differently,' " he said.

"When he's on top of his game," Boudreau said, "it doesn't matter how they're playing against him."

This, though, is a player who has led the league in shots on goal in each of his five NHL seasons, frequently by a wide margin. It is a player who led the Capitals in points during last year's playoffs, when he averaged 6.4 shots per game. It is a player who, when he performs as he did Thursday, will be scrutinized like only one or two others in the league would be.

"He's 100 percent healthy," Boudreau said. "We'll get that out of the way. . . . We're making excuses for him. He just didn't have a great game, and every human being, no matter how good you are, sometimes doesn't have a great game, and I think we should leave it at that and see how he goes the rest of the series."

Ovechkin's performance became the marquee issue after the first game in part because the rest of the Capitals couldn't beat Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak on 45 of their 47 shots, and because Tomas Plekanec rifled one by Washington goaltender José Theodore in overtime, lifting the eighth-seeded Canadiens. But even if Washington had won in the extra period, Boudreau and the Capitals believe Ovechkin must play better if they are to advance deep into the playoffs. One of Boudreau's fallback lines, one he reiterated Thursday night, is: "Your best players have to be your best players." If they're not, then those on the third and fourth lines might be asked to perform duties of which they're not capable, and nicely defined roles become discombobulated.

"The top guys on the team, the guys that play the most minutes, usually have an infectious [effect]," forward Brooks Laich said. "The other guys follow them. If you see the top guys running and gunning and playing hard and playing defense, it really inspires the other guys. . . . It's an infectious attitude when you see the top players playing hard and their desire to win. It could do a lot for a team."

Ovechkin is his team's best player, and many believe the best player in the sport, in part because of that all-out, all-the-time attitude and how it affects his teammates. Somehow, that was missing in Game 1.

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