With one minute left in the Washington Capitals’ regular season, Alex Ovechkin lurked around the front of the net. Fans cheered him with chants of “O-vi,” fuel for an exhausted star. He had played roughly six of the final eight minutes of the game, one goal shy of 50. Pucks were bouncing around him, force-fed by his teammates. But none found his stick, and none found the net.
“Effort was there,” Ovechkin said with a chuckle. “And you can see I’m ready for playoffs, in pretty good shape.”
Ovechkin finished with 49 goals, and the Capitals finished with a 5-3 win over the New Jersey Devils in the regular season finale. The Capitals will play the Columbus Blue Jackets in a first-round playoff series, which won’t start until Wednesday at the earliest.
Washington was 3-1 against the Blue Jackets this season.
The playoff schedule won’t be finalized until Sunday’s Boston Bruins-Florida Panthers game is complete.
Ovechkin’s two-goal performance Saturday left him at 49 on the season, good enough for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy awarded to the player who finishes with the most.
Washington ended the regular season 49-26-7 for 105 points, not quite as dominant as the past two Presidents’ Trophy-winning seasons, but perhaps more impressive considering this team leaned on less experienced and less expensive players after running into salary cap constraints over the summer.
A driving force of the Capitals’ success was Ovechkin, who scored roughly 19 percent of the team’s goals. He started the season with hat tricks in his first two games and he nearly ended his season with one, too.
“I said going into this we would just go four lines and not worry about matchups,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “He ended up with two, and the puck kept following him around. I just said to him, ‘Keep them short. I’m going to use you a lot, so let’s see if we can go for it.’ The guys on the bench were trying. He must have had 25 shot attempts, and [Devils players] were standing next to him, too, so that just tells you how good he is sometimes. I was praying that he would get 50, and everyone on the bench was, too. But still, 49 goals, not that many guys in this league can do what he’s done. He’s been outstanding.”
The Capitals had a 3-2 lead entering the third period, but Patrick Maroon tied the game just 2:04 after intermission. That marked his third point of the game, as he had the primary assists on the Devils’ first two goals.
But Ovechkin isn’t outdone often. He caught a puck in the offensive zone, batting it down to his feet before slapping it into the net for his second goal of the game and his 49th of the season. Washington was back up, 4-3, but anxious fans were hopeful Ovechkin wasn’t finished. They started chanting, “We want 50” as Ovechkin played on with 13 minutes left in the game.
When he had a breakaway chance with 10:26 remaining, fans stood and then groaned in frustration after he missed the net. The chants started up again.
“A lot of guys were passing up shots trying to get him the 50th,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
“We look for a little bit more than usual,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “I don’t think he sad about that, that he didn’t get 50. Forty-nine is still good number.”
Ovechkin has played in every game this season, one of three Capitals to do so, and he has previously reached the 50-goal plateau seven times in his career. Two years ago, he scored a hat trick to record 50 goals in the very last game he played. After he scored his 47th goal Thursday night, he was asked about his pursuit of 50 and if three goals in the finale was possible.
“Everything is possible,” Ovechkin said then. “I had lots of moments tonight and previous games. I just have to hit the net, and you never know what’s going to happen.”
A year ago, Ovechkin wasn’t close to this position. He finished the 2016-17 campaign with 33 goals in one of the worst goal-scoring seasons of his career. Capitals management challenged him to get his production back up this season, and Trotz even set the bar at 50 goals in training camp.
Ovechkin didn’t waste his opportunities early in the game. Eighteen seconds after Devils goaltender Cory Schneider saved a point-blank Ovechkin wrister, Ovechkin scored with a slap shot, lifting the Capitals to a 1-0 lead just 2:21 into the game. Ovechkin had four shot attempts after the first period. He was up to seven by the end of the second period. He finished with eight shots on goal, seven misses and three attempts blocked in 21 minutes of ice time. The Capitals had two power plays in the third period, two opportunities for Ovechkin to score his 50th goal. He managed a shot on each.
“I have pretty good chances in the first and the second and the third — the breakaway, I missed an empty net,” Ovechkin said. “But whatever. [Expletive] happens.”