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Ovie relishes taunts, punishes Rangers
As the clock ticked down toward the 8-minute mark of each period, the crowd would bustle with anticipation, waiting with bated breath. And when it reached 8:10, the countdown started, a gleeful chorus, like nearby Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
Then, when the timer hit 8:00, the Blueshirts faithful began their risqué chant in unison, offering their salty nod at the Capitals’ No. 8, Alex Ovechkin.
“Ovie sucks! Ovie sucks!”
And through more than 100 minutes of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the two-time Hart Trophy winner Ovechkin did little to shut them up.
Often glued to the bench under his defensive-minded head coach, Dale Hunter, the brash offensive whiz Ovechkin had limited opportunities and even less luck putting his stamp on a game or a series this postseason.
But late Monday night, that all changed, and Ovechkin finally broke out, scoring a power-play winner with 7:27 left in the third to give the Capitals a 3-2 road win and knot the series at 1-1 as the teams head to Washington for Game 3 on Wednesday.
The goal came just four seconds into a Washington power play and was set up by center Nicklas Backstrom, who won an offensive-zone faceoff against Brian Boyle and pushed the puck directly to his left winger.
Ovechkin received the puck and, without hesitation, unleashed a wrist shot from just inside the blue line, which sailed past New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist to give the Capitals their second and final lead of the night.
“I was shocked when I turned and I didn’t see anybody come to me, and I had a perfect lane for a shot and I saw the net,” said Ovechkin, who spends most of his time on the ice cloaked with opposing defenders. “And when I see the net, I’m going to put it in.”
“Not too many guys could have scored that goal from way out there,” Hunter added. “He’s got a great wrist shot, so every time he’s on the ice, he’s dangerous, and he doesn’t need to have too much ice to score goals.”
The goal was long overdue for Ovechkin, who, through his first eight games this postseason, had just five points (two goals, three assists) and had tallied just one point in the past four games coming in.
“I don’t think there’s a guy that loves to score goals more than him, and obviously me and him haven’t been scoring,” said Backstrom, who has just one goal this postseason. “It’s nice to see him score, and hopefully he can get some confidence from that when we go back to DC.”
Confidence is good, but selfishness isn’t. So the most important thing for the Capitals going forward is making sure that Ovechkin plays poised hockey and doesn’t sabotage the effort Hunter has put into developing a game plan and making it work.
A former Capitals captain himself, Hunter got his first crack at an NHL coaching gig when he took over for fired headman Bruce Boudreau in late November, and he wasted no time in changing the culture in the locker room and reeling in his star forward.
To call Ovie a defensive liability would be putting it lightly, and when his team has a lead to protect, Hunter isn’t shy about giving his main attraction the hook.
Ovechkin averaged a career-low 19:48 of ice time per game this season, and his offensive numbers took a considerable hit. The one-time 65-goal scorer only managed 65 total points (38 goals and 27 assists), and his minus-8 rating was the lowest since his second season in the league, when the Capitals won just 28 games.
“Dale is coaching situations and playing certain guys,” said Capitals veteran winger Mike Knuble, who scored Washington’s first goal in Monday’s win. “If we’re down a goal, (Ovechkin) is going to be our main guy; he’s going every other shift. If we’re up a goal, then Dale trends to lean on other guys. That’s the way it is.”
Ovechkin played a postseason-low 13:36 on 18 shifts in Game 2, but he made the most of his opportunities and picked his spots, and that's exactly what the Capitals need out of their leader. If Ovie is on board with Hunter — and so far that’s been the case — the sky’s the limit for the seventh-seeded Capitals, who knocked off the No. 2 Boston Bruins in seven games before facing the top-seeded Rangers.
“Ovie’s a team guy; he’s cheering his guys on (and) he’s happy,” Hunter said of Ovechkin’s mindset. “He knows what these guys are going to do at the end of a game. They’ve got to go out and slide and block shots, and he appreciates that from the (Jay) Beagles and (Matt) Hendricks of our team.”
What Washington can’t afford is for Ovechkin to get frustrated and try to take over. Because while goal-scoring has always been synonymous with Ovechkin, Ovechkin’s goals have not always been synonymous with Capitals playoff success.
The Caps are 12-11 all-time when Ovie scores in the playoffs. They had lost four straight when Ovechkin found the net before Monday, including an 0-2 record this postseason.
Washington won’t get anywhere in this series without a meaningful contribution from Ovechkin, and Monday’s win was proof positive of that. But the key for Ovie is to let the game come to him, rather than recklessly trying to force the issue — and the sooner he learns that, the better.
“The most important thing right now is to win the series and win the game,” said Ovechkin, who seems to understand and accept his role, however begrudgingly. “If you’re going to talk about my game time and all that kind of stuff, it’s not a season, it’s the playoffs, and you’ve got to suck it up and play for the team.”
“If you have 10 seconds, you have to go out there and do something with it,” he added. “It’s kind of hard, but it is what it is.”
Ovechkin only needed four seconds on his winner Monday night, and the bonus “Ovie sucks” chant it coaxed from the stunned MSG crowd was music to the frustrated forward’s ears.
“Ovie loves it,” Hunter said. “When the crowd’s on you, there’s a reason. It’s because you’re playing well.”
And the better he plays — or, rather, the more willingly he follows along with Hunter’s game plan — the better the Capitals’ chances are at securing a second-round upset.
Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner