With less than a minute remaining Sunday afternoon, Alex Ovechkin skated down the right wing at Verizon Center, sure victory dangling on his stick. The Buffalo Sabres’ goal sat empty, gaping. All that remained was for Ovechkin to toss the puck into the net, celebrate a victory with his teammates, and an afternoon-long exhale would have been complete.
And then he shot. And because nothing is easy for the Washington Capitals and their central figure at the moment, the puck clanked off the side of the net. The Sabres lived. The crowd cringed.
On the bench, Adam Oates, Ovechkin’s coach, said to himself: “Oh, no. Not now.”
Relax, for once. The stat sheet shows that a phrase that used to be so familiar around here — Ovechkin scored the game-winning goal on the power play — resurfaced in Sunday’s 3-2 victory over the Sabres. The goal was Ovechkin’s first of the season. The win was the Capitals’ first of the season. Hugs all around, with room to joke about that whiffed empty-netter afterward.
“I knew it was gonna come sooner or later,” Ovechkin said.
Yet it had never taken this long into a season, five games, for Ovechkin to score. Likewise, these Capitals, with four division titles in the past five years, aren’t accustomed to starting 0-3-1, the last team in the NHL to get a win.
So fair or not, Sunday felt like a referendum on the entire season, shortened as it may be. Fail to win even once in the first five games, three of which were at home, and there would be reason to wonder not only if the playoffs were out of the question, but if the days of contending for the Stanley Cup were over before they ever actually contended for one. The focus on Ovechkin, too, would only intensify, as it has the previous two seasons, when his point total fell from 109 in 2009-10 to 85 in ’10-11 to 65 a year ago.
But leave it to old friend Mike Green to serve up Ovechkin’s first goal, a pass to the left circle five minutes into the third period. This was the kind of goal that was once standard around here, Ovechkin timing it perfectly and blasting it powerfully. Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller had little chance. Old-school Ovi.
“He ripped a hard shot,” Oates said afterward. “That’s one of his special talents.”
The puck in the net, Ovechkin punched toward the ice with his left fist, then accepted congratulations. He now has 112 power-play goals in his career. How many have provided this sense of relief?
“From this goal now, you’re going to see his confidence build up,” said newly acquired center Mike Ribeiro, playing just his fifth game as Ovechkin’s teammate. “It’s going to be easier. You’re not going to squeeze [the stick]. You’re not going to think as much. . . .
“Even if you’re confident and ready, just scoring one goal will change the way you’re going to play. It’s not going [through] your mind thinking, ‘Jeez, if I don’t score, then what?’ ”
This is, of course, not just about one goal or one win. It is about sustainability on both counts. For all the groaning about the obsession with Ovechkin’s declining production over the previous two seasons, there is a direct correlation between how much he scores and how frequently the Caps win. Over his eight seasons, he averages 1.6 points per game in Washington’s victories, eight-tenths of a point per game in Washington’s losses.
“If your best players are your best players,” General Manager George McPhee said during the lockout, bringing back a phrase he likes, “you win a lot more than you lose.”
McPhee was asked, at the time, if he hired Oates in part because, as a Hall of Fame player, Oates might be able to relate well to Ovechkin. The short version of McPhee’s answer: “Of course.”
But it is clearly a process. Sunday, Ovechkin began the game with two grinding linemates in Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb. By early in the second, he rejoined standby center Nicklas Backstrom and wing Troy Brouwer. Regardless of who he plays with, he still makes Verizon Center tense up like no one else can — left wing, right wing, power play, even strength, whatever.
So when he received the puck on the left wing early in the second, the gasp came from so many of the fans who filled the building. Remember: He’s the reason they wear red. He’s the reason Sunday’s game was the 156th straight sellout here. So there was angst with each rush. Maybe this could be the time. Maybe this would be a goal. Maybe this will get him going.
On that drive, Ovechkin fumbled the puck away in traffic through the middle. But he was in the process of establishing himself as . . . well, himself.
“When he moves his feet, he’s the best player in the world,” forward Jason Chimera said. “That’s what he can do. . . . When he does that, people follow.”
Parsing Chimera’s words might indicate there are times he doesn’t move his feet, so he’s not the best player in the world. Ovechkin needs, Chimera was saying, to provide the reason to follow.
“He’s one of our marquee guys,” Oates said. “He has to play well. Every team’s sta . . .” And with the word “stars” halfway out his mouth, Oates stopped himself. “Good players have to play well. They do. And no exception here.”
There once was no question that Ovechkin was a star, not just in Washington, but across the NHL. He embraced the role, and the Caps embraced him as theirs. The Capitals now have more rapid-fire games, four before the Super Bowl kicks off. Will they help continue the exhale, for Ovechkin and the entire team?
“It’s done now,” Ribeiro said. “You’ll see him skate better, play better, and from there, he’s probably going to score more open nets than the one he missed today.”
He smiled, because for one day early in this season with the Caps, that was the appropriate response.