With his team up by a goal late in regulation Sunday night and having a chance to obtain sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division with a win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, Coach Adam Oates didn’t hesitate to put the Washington Capitals’ star winger on the ice.
It’s an opportunity in a critical situation that Alex Ovechkin didn’t always receive last season but one that the 27-year-old captain values and appreciates.
On this particular occasion, Ovechkin rewarded Oates’s confidence with an empty-net goal with 4.4 seconds left in the third period to seal a 4-2 Washington win over the Lightning.
The tally clinched the Capitals’ fourth consecutive victory, their eighth win in the past 10 games, and it pushed them to 42 points — two ahead of the Winnipeg Jets, who are their nearest competitor in the Southeast Division. It also marked Ovechkin’s 25th goal of the season, tying him with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos as the league’s leading goal scorer and perhaps reminding the entire NHL that the dynamic winger is just as powerful an offensive force as he ever was.
“Right now I feel pretty good and again we win the games it’s most important thing,” Ovechkin said. “Of course I’m happy I score the goals, the beginning of the year was pretty hard time for all organization. Now we’re back on track and it’s good.”
In back-to-back contests this weekend against the Florida Panthers and Lightning, Ovechkin recorded six points (five goals, one assist) but this weekend is only the latest chapter of Ovechkin’s offensive explosiveness this season.
“He’s scoring on his chances; obviously he’s got a lot of shots during the game,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “It makes it easier. And when he has confidence, it’s fun to see and helps the team a lot.”
For the better part of the past three weeks, Ovechkin has been the commanding and unstoppable on-ice presence that made him one of the league’s most ebullient players early in his career. It’s no coincidence that the Capitals’ rise up the Eastern Conference standings occurred at the same time. Over the past 12 games, Ovechkin has recorded 15 goals and 21 points and Washington is 9-2-1.
“I think that’s why we’ve been playing so good as a team,” rookie defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “I think everybody feeds off that and when we see him finding that next level I think everybody in the room finds that next level.”
Ovechkin’s 25th goal might not have been his most highlight-reel worthy of the season, considering it was already ruled an automatic goal before he put the puck in the empty net. Tampa Bay center Alex Killorn reached his stick over the bench to try to impede the winger as he made his way up the ice, making the tally a foregone conclusion before Ovechkin skated it the whole way up to the cage.
But Ovechkin’s first goal of the night against Tampa Bay was an example of the captain taking advantage of an opportunity he might not have previously in his career, which is among the things Oates has worked to help Ovechkin learn how to identify a variety of scoring chances and take advantage of all types rather than relying on a few set plays.
Tampa Bay carried a 1-0 lead into the second period thanks to a power-play goal by Vincent Lecavalier, but 3 minutes 14 seconds into the middle period Ovechkin put Washington on the board.
As the play worked up the left-side boards, Ovechkin realized a shot might be coming from his teammates up near the blue line and made a strong move to step in front of defensemen Keith Aulie to gain positioning in front of the Tampa Bay net. When Jack Hillen fired a shot from the point, Ovechkin was in position to redirect the puck past Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop to even it at 1.
“He’s got two tips in five games. When did he ever do that before?” Oates said. “He’s around the puck more.”
Oates reiterated how important it has been for him to build trust with Ovechkin and teach the face of the Capitals’ franchise to embrace the various adjustments like the switch to right wing, being involved in the play in all three zones and learning how to take advantage of the opportunities his linemates can create for him.
“It’s respect,” Oates said. “He never met me before, and I totally respect who he is, and what he’s accomplished, and when you suggest something like that, it has to be a meeting of the minds and a private conversations and he had to trust me.”
John Carlson and Joel Ward, who left the game after blocking a shot with his left leg but is expected to travel to Montreal with the team, added goals for Washington, but once again it was Ovechkin finishing things off for the Capitals.
For Ovechkin there may be no greater feeling than knowing his coach is willing to play him late in close, important games.
“It’s trust. That’s what I don’t have last year,” Ovechkin said. “When you have that kind of feelings you just want to go out there, play for your team for your coach and do your best out there.
Capitals notes: Neither Brooks Laich (lower body) nor Martin Erat (left leg) played because of injury. Oates said Laich did not aggravate the groin injury that kept him out of the lineup for the first 28 games of the season but said this new injury is affecting the groin.
Laich, 29, is scheduled to meet with groin specialist Michael Brunt, who is based out of St. Louis and performed sports hernia surgeries on Mike Green and Ward last season, on Tuesday in Washington.