Alex Ovechkin has been on the ice or the bench — and, most often, slamming himself into the glass in unmitigated glee — for the most significant moments in Washington Capitals history over the past decade and more. So this had to be an odd feeling in the first period Friday night: Ovechkin, out of sight in the Caps’ dressing room, when Verizon Center roared following Washington’s power-play goal — a power play he defines, a power play that was left without him.
“I was watching TV,” Ovechkin said. “Just have a Coke and enjoy the match.”
At that point, who among the 18,506 at Verizon expected to see Ovechkin again? He left the ice not struggling, not limping, but completely unable to put weight on his left leg, helped off by two teammates. Before that, he lay prone on the ice, wobbling only from hip to hip, and his pain appeared obvious. Before that, he had tried to play a puck off the boards and then skip around Toronto forward Nazem Kadri, who lowered his left hip into Ovechkin’s knee, flipping him.
And there was all of Washington, unable to exhale. Spring might end early around here, and Caps fans know that. But ending early without Ovechkin?
The fifth game of this impossibly tight first-round playoff series between the Caps and the Maple Leafs ended when Justin Williams augmented his already substantial postseason legacy by scoring just more than a minute into overtime, giving Washington a 2-1 victory that provides a crucial three-games-to-two-lead as the series heads back to Toronto, where the Capitals will have a chance to advance Sunday night.
But the moment with Ovechkin on the ice and no way to know what would come next represented something larger than even that. This was, in a perverse way, a reminder of what exactly Ovechkin means not just to these Capitals right now, but what he has meant to hockey in this city.
Without Ovechkin, there’s no nine playoff appearances in 10 years here — a run that fans in Toronto (second time in 12 years) would certainly take. There’s no “Rock the Red” or “Unleash the Fury,” at least not at the percentage to which the fan base dresses in the team colors, and not at the volume with which they bellow the latter phrase in the waning moments of the third period, the game still on the line. And there absolutely, positively aren’t 360 straight sellouts — as there are after Friday night — if Alex Ovechkin never showed up on F Street.
And here he was, both down and out.
“At the end of the day, I’m cheating my teammates if I don’t try to get a piece of him, because he’s dumping the puck in and going around our defensemen,” Kadri said, by way of explanation, of a play that — with the advantage of replay — didn’t appear dirty. “At the end of the day, I got no choice. I’ve got to hold him up and try to save my defensemen.”
Which is one way an opponent, in the moment, articulates what Ovechkin means. For all he is and all he isn’t, he still draws the eye — and all the attention of the other team — when he’s on the ice.
For Washington, so much of the buildup to these playoffs was about the construction of this team. This is the most complete unit Ovechkin has played on in his dozen seasons, and the fact that he and T.J. Oshie shared the Caps’ lead in goals — 33, the second-lowest total of Ovechkin’s career — served as an indication that, on a given night, the Caps’ offense didn’t have to come from Ovechkin.
It served as a talking point, because someone like Williams would serve as a grinder on the second line, and Nicklas Backstrom is still here orchestrating the power play, and Evgeny Kuznetsov has unleashed his skill, and Oshie can score, and the back end is solid, and Braden Holtby just won the Vezina Trophy, and . . .
It took a while before the topic of Ovechkin even came up.
And yet, in those minutes when it seemed like he may not reappear, the potential of playing without him — of making a run in the playoffs without him — was a decidedly dark development. Perhaps no player in the NHL, over the past decade, has been as picked apart as Ovechkin. He’s not a two-way player, they say. He gets a disproportionate percentage of his production from the power play. At his worst, he’s dirty. Nit after nit after nit, all leading to the gut punch: He has no Stanley Cup, not even close.
But what of what he is? He has three goals in the series — and the two on the power play somehow don’t count? No Cap in history has more goals or more points. We know the résumé.
“When you see a star player down, you’re always concerned,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s the face of the franchise.”
And then, there was that stubbly face, barreling out of the tunnel when the second period began.
“I just needed a little break,” Ovechkin said.
The Verizon crowd took notice, because this is still their guy. It’s cool to have an Oshie 77 sweater, or a Holtby 70, or even something a little more obscure — a stray David Steckel or Matt Bradley or something. But those all run distant seconds to the Ovechkin 8s that flood the crowd, night after night.
So here was his Willis Reed moment.
“It’s Ovi,” Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “He’s a replace-the-parts-and-keep-going kind of guy.”
In the fall of 2006, Ovechkin took a shot off his right foot from then-teammate Shaone Morrisonn — friendly fire. Though he had to be helped off the ice — as with Schmidt and Backstrom’s’s help Friday — he practiced the next day.
“I’m okay,” he said then. “Russian machine never breaks.”
It’s so long ago, and that phrase has become part of the Caps lexicon — spawning a blog, T-shirts, the whole bit — that we forget. Friday, we were reminded: The truth is that Ovechkin is still, at 31 and a piece of the furniture around here, a mesmerizing character. He didn’t factor in any of the goals, and his critics will point out that he has just one even-strength point in five games.
“I’m not quite sure I was happy to see him come back on the ice,” Kadri said.
The Verizon Center was, and decidedly so. He took the first shift of the second period — and promptly laid a massive hit on Toronto’s Jake Gardiner.
Ovechkin ended up playing nearly 20 minutes Friday night, when it looked like he might not see the rest of the period. Remember how you felt when he was down. It serves as a way to appreciate all he has been here.