NEW YORK — There have been slumps when Alex Ovechkin sounded as though he didn’t know why he wasn’t scoring.
Sunday was not one of those days. The Washington Capitals’ star criticized himself for a selfish play he made in the first period of his team’s Game 1 loss to the New York Rangers, acknowledged that he needs to play smarter and said he must make better decisions with the puck in the offensive end.
Admitting you’ve got a problem is the first step, right?
Ovechkin, who has one goal and no assists the past four games, dodged criticism in the first round because the Capitals rallied to vanquish Boston in seven games. But after he was held without a point and only one shot on goal Saturday afternoon, his struggles are being illuminated by Broadway’s bright lights.
The odds of the Capitals’ supporting cast carrying them for a second straight series, after all, seem about as likely as Ovechkin beating both of the Rangers’ top defensemen on the rush, as he attempted to do in the first period. Instead of making the highlight reels, though, Ovechkin ended up in the penalty box after Dan Girardi stood his ground, Ryan McDonagh poked the puck away and the Capitals’ captain tripped McDonagh.
“I make a bad decision,” said Ovechkin, who has two goals in eight games this postseason after scoring five in nine last spring. “Sometimes I make that kinds of decisions and after that I just think, ‘Jesus, why I do that?’ ”
The larger issue for Ovechkin in Game 1, though, was that he rarely possessed the puck. And when he did, it wasn’t while knifing through the neutral zone at warp speed.
Some of that was the Rangers’ tight-checking defensive scheme. Some of it was Ovechkin’s own doing.
“I have to find a way, first of all, to have the puck, and [then] find a lane to shoot it on net,” he said after an hour-long practice at Madison Square Garden. “I just have to have more patience in the neutral zone. Don’t come close to the blue line [without the puck]. Because if I’m going to get the puck on the blue line, I don’t have speed and I’m not that [dangerous] guy.”
“If [Brooks Laich] or [Troy] Brouwer or somebody else is going to have the puck, maybe don’t take full speed right away,” he continued. “Maybe take a little bit [of] time, and after that I can skate. If I want to make an opportunity for me, they have to give me full speed in the neutral zone because in the zone it’s hard to find space [with] Girardi on me and another guy on me.”
The Rangers, however, are familiar with Ovechkin’s preferences and are committed to making sure he doesn’t get his way.
“He likes to get speed, so we have to keep the gap [tight] against him, which [forces] him to dump it before he gains the [offensive] blue line,” McDonagh said. “That’s the goal. You’re not going to completely take the puck out of his hands, but if you can keep him to the outside, [goaltender Henrik Lundqvist] can make those saves nine times out of 10.”
Added Girardi: “We tried to stay up in his face and not give him too much room to wheel around with the puck. He’s going to have chances when he’s coming down the wing and you try to keep him to the outside. If he does cut to the middle, you pass him off to your partner, take his space away and try to make his life hard.”
Ovechkin said he also intends to be more judicious with the puck in Game 2. On Saturday, he attempted five shots, but managed to put only one of them on Lundqvist. Two missed the net and two were turned aside by one of the NHL’s best shot-blocking teams.
During a five-on-three power play midway through the second period, Ovechkin snapped one shot over New York’s net and had another blocked by Ruslan Fedotenko. As a result, the Rangers extinguished the 34-second two-man advantage and the game remained scoreless.
“They love to block shots,” Ovechkin said. “If you have opportunity to fake it, they go down on one knee or they go down all the body, you give the puck back to open guy.”
With help from Ovechkin, the Rangers shut down the Capitals’ primary scoring threat in Game 1. But Ovechkin doesn’t seem overly concerned. It’s only one game and, as he said, the Rangers’ defensive coverage isn’t as suffocating as the Bruins’ was in the first round.
“For me, I have more time and space than [I had] against Boston,” he said. “A hundred percent.”
Monday night would be a good time to start using it.