NEW YORK — Inside the visiting dressing room at Madison Square Garden, amid the swirling mix of elation and relief late Thursday night, the Washington Capitals clamored for the presidential address. “Speech,” they yelled. “Wait for this one, boys. This is going to be a good one.” Up rose their captain, tipping the black stovetop pipe hat awarded after wins and slipping the fuzzy beard around his chin. He pointed around the room and began to speak.
“Well, good effort by everybody,” forward Alex Ovechkin said, scrolling through the list of teammates who contributed to a 2-1 victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals before pivoting ahead toward Saturday afternoon’s rematch. “We’re going to take game by game boys. Take one, second one, we have to take it here. [Heck] yeah.”
A loud cheer arose from the Capitals. “Destroyer,” they hollered, an apt nickname given what came before this particular oration. Ovechkin had creamed one goal on the rush past netminder Henrik Lundqvist, who froze in place as the puck struck the net, as if he was wondering how such a shot was humanly possible. He had notched the primary assist for Joel Ward’s buzzer-beater, a slick, no-look, across-the-body feed with 1.3 seconds left before overtime. He had dominated possession against the Rangers’ top line and demonstrated every bit of two-way improvement credited to Coach Barry Trotz.
And now he peeled a fifth square off the team’s countdown poster, one step closer to the Stanley Cup and the last uncharted waters for this generation’s greatest goal scorer. This season, he was named a Hart Trophy finalist and won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Award, each for the fifth time. He finished with 53 goals, 10 more than anyone else in the NHL.
But eight games into his first postseason with a veteran head coach, 89 games into the rejuvenation project steered by Trotz, the Capitals are praising the team-oriented side of Ovechkin, the one Trotz had heard was nonexistent.
“It was funny, sometimes perception’s reality, and the perception for a lot of things that were said to me, my perception and all that, were probably off,” Trotz said. “When you get to know Alex . . . he’s a real good player who buys into whatever you’re doing, and you just give him a reason why and you see the results. He’s been a real revelation.”
Trotz said something similar Monday night, after Ovechkin and the Capitals eked out their seven-game, first-round win over the New York Islanders. Early in that series, Trotz sensed Ovechkin pressing for goals, lugging the same burden to produce that had derailed him in past seasons. So he pulled Ovechkin aside and talked, much as they had during their first meeting last June in Las Vegas.
“You have to put pressure for yourself to get success as a team,” Ovechkin said. “It’s not about individual stuff. That’s what he said to me after, I think, I don’t know what game it was. He tell me don’t put pressure on yourself. You have to do little things to get success. And it works. So, again, whatever works, you have to stay in this routine.”
This routine worked just fine in Game 1. Matched against the Rangers’ shutdown defensive pair and top forward line, Ovechkin finished with a game-high plus-15 shot differential at even strength, including another on-the-rush attempt that pinged the crossbar and, of course, the laser beam past Lundqvist. But when fellow Russian forward Evgeny Kuznetsov chose Ovechkin as the next recipient of the “Honest Abe’s Players’ Player of the Game” award, he pointed not toward the goal or the assist on Ward’s game-winner but Ovechkin’s play inside the neutral and defensive zones.
“If he’s having a little bit of a slump, he’s still wanting to work hard, still wanting to play hard,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “In previous seasons, maybe he, you know, tried to do a little bit more individual stuff, where this year, he’s sticking with the systems a little bit more, making sure that he’s putting the team interest far ahead of his personal interests, and as a result, he gets rewarded.”
Said defenseman Karl Alzner: “People are realizing that he can play a good all-around game. It’s big for us. We were joking around yesterday that he should have been nominated for the Selke because he’s doing a good job.”
The award for best defensive forward might never wind up inside Ovechkin’s trophy case, but the mere thought would suffice as a symbol of growth. He was still the center of attention, as always, drawing jeers from the Rangers’ faithful at the eight-minute mark of each period — for his No. 8 jersey — and joking he would only venture into the New York City streets with “hat and glasses, no smiling.”
But he had become someone else, too, a captain more respected inside the locker room, a bulldozer ably handling defensive responsibilities, a player Trotz confidently compared to Mark Messier twice Thursday inside the building that once housed the legend.
“It’s easy to pick on great players or try to pick them apart,” Trotz said. “That’s just part of society now. We try to find fault in everything rather than, as I said yesterday, he’s that unique talent, that strength and skill and power and physicality. That’s pretty rare. Sometimes we try to pick that apart and look for the fault.
“But he’s been one of the most consistent goal scorers in the National Hockey League. He’s been one of the most dynamic people. I know that coaching him, at our practices and on the road, there’s a lot more people, and they’re not coming to see Barry Trotz. They’re coming to see Alex Ovechkin.”