Alex Ovechkin’s second chance begins Thursday in Boston.
And it’s critical that the Washington Capitals’ star winger is ready from the opening faceoff in Game 1 instead of showing up two-thirds of the way through the series like he did in the regular season. Because if the Capitals are going to have any hope of salvaging a year that, to this point, has been a disappointment, it must begin with stealing one of the series’ first two games at TD Garden.
Each of the eight first-round upsets the past three seasons, in fact, started the same way: The lower seed won either Game 1 or 2 (or both) on the road. Those upsets include Washington’s seven-game collapse against the Montreal Canadiens, who opened the 2010 quarterfinals by stunning the Presidents’ Trophy winners on an overtime goal by Tomas Plekanec in Game 1.
The Capitals need to do the same thing to the Bruins. Steal home ice. Plant the seed of doubt. Put the pressure on them.
To accomplish that, however, Ovechkin can’t be the streaky, disengaged player who mustered a measly two goals during a four-week span from Nov. 12 to Dec. 13. He’ll have to be the focused, determined game changer who netted 11 goals in the final 16 regular season contests, the former two-time MVP who hoisted the Capitals on his shoulders and carried them into the postseason for a fifth consecutive year.
As productive as Ovechkin was over the final four weeks of the regular season, that stretch also capped a difficult season for the 26-year-old captain, who finished with a career-low 65 points.
But even as his numbers nose dived for a second straight season, this much did not change: No player has as a bigger impact on each night’s result more than Ovechkin.
Consider this: The Capitals were 21-5-4 this season when he scored at least one goal, including 5-1-2 in March and April. He also netted Washington’s first goal 14 times and a team-leading seven goals in the final 10 minutes of regulation and overtime.
The list of players capable of singlehandedly swaying the series one way or another is a short one. Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas for the Bruins. Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for the Capitals. That’s about it.
If Ovechkin manages to continue his recent surge and ignite a deep run in the playoffs, few will remember his regular season struggles or the fact that the Capitals didn’t clinch a berth until the final week of the regular season. After all, legacies in the NHL are forged in the postseason. If anyone understands that, it’s Ovechkin, who has a trophy case full of awards but has not come close to claiming the one that matters most.
If he falters, though, the potential ramifications could be severe. A first-round exit — particularly one in which the Capitals offer little resistance — would mark the third time in five years their season ended in the quarterfinals. It could lead to sweeping changes for a team The Hockey News predicted would win the Stanley Cup in August. It also means the window of opportunity, the one that seemed to be so wide open four seasons ago, just closed another inch or two.
Upsetting the Bruins won’t be easy.
Every shot Ovechkin takes will be fired at Thomas, the reigning winner of the Vezina and Conn Smythe trophies. Thomas’s year was an uneven one, to be sure, but he finished the regular season by winning six of eight starts and yielding more than two goals only once.
Each time Ovechkin climbs over the boards for a shift, he’ll also have to contend with Chara, the game’s most complete defenseman. “It’s something that motivates me,” Chara told reporters in Boston this week.
In three games against the Bruins this season (he missed one meeting due to suspension), Ovechkin finished with no goals and three assists.
He also figures to be the primary target of one of the hardest-hitting teams in the NHL, a notion he scoffs at. “For me,” he said, “the more physical the game is going to be, it’s going to be better for me personally.”
When the NHL’s “second season” starts Thursday, Ovechkin will get an opportunity he and his teammates nearly missed out on.
Puck drop is 7:30, Alex. Don’t be late.