Ovechkin leads way as Caps force Game 7

Alex Ovechkin spun on his backside like a top after a collision with New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonough early in the third period.

The Washington Capitals captain somehow kept possession of the puck and fired it at the Rangers net, a low volley that was turned aside by goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

No matter. Ovechkin had already given the Caps a vital goal in a 2-1 victory in Game 6 of the second-round series at Verizon Center on Wednesday night.

His inspired play — even after taking a shot to the groin from a well-placed Rangers stick in the first period — is certainly something the Caps can carry into Saturday’s decisive Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.

“We don’t want to stop playing,” said Ovechkin, whose 30th career playoff goal tied him with Peter Bondra for first in franchise history. “We don’t want to finish the season. We knew we could beat them. We are going to have our chances.”

The first came just 88 seconds into the contest when Ovechkin buried a one-timer off a pass from Nicklas Backstrom on the power play. Jason Chimera made it a 2-0 lead midway through the second period, a margin that held up before Rangers forward Marian Gaborik banked the puck off a Caps defenseman as Ludnqvist sat for an extra attacker with 50.5 seconds left.

Meanwhile, rookie goalie Braden Holtby turned in another solid performance, this time stopping 30 shots.

Still, it was Ovechkin who set the tone after a frustrating Game 5 at MSG two days prior where the Caps allowed the Rangers to tie with 6.6 seconds left and then win it in OT.

“Wherever he’s going, we are definitely going to follow,” veteran Caps forward Joel Ward said. “He’s a tremendous offensive weapon when he’s out there making plays. He’s scored some big goals in the playoffs. It’s fun to see him so excited. We’re just trying to follow suit. I’m not sure we can keep up with him offensively, but we’re trying to do the best we can.”

Ovechkin could have easily gotten away from his game after taking only five shifts in the second period, a product of both a double minor the Caps had to kill off and the fact his ice time gets cut significantly in favor of the more defensive-minded forwards when Washington has the lead.

“He had a lot of energy,” Caps coach Dale Hunter said. “He blocked shots. He didn’t get much ice because all of the (penalty) kills, but he’s already ready when he’s called upon. He played a good game tonight.”

As big of name Ovechkin is around the sport, the name “Beagle” has been uttered nearly as much this series.

The Capitals were without Jay Beagle, a trivial absence one would have thought a few weeks ago. That’s before the Beagle, a defensive-minded center who’s won 54 percent of his faceoffs this postseason, became one of Washington’s ice-time leaders, and he’s logged more time than bigger-name forwards like Alex Semin, Chimera and Ward.

It was Beagle’s replacement, Jeff Halpern, who gave the Rangers a chance to hop back into contention a minute after Chimera made it 2-0 in the second period. Halpern caught Rangers forward John Mitchell on the bridge of his nose with a high stick that drew blood. The result was a double minor, but the Rangers tossed only three shots on net and the best scoring chance during the four-minute span came on a shorthanded opportunity that Caps forward Marcus Johansson just missed converting on an odd-man rush.

“Sucked,” Rangers coach Tortorella said of his team’s inability to create chances on that power play. “It kills you. It sucked.”

Ovechkin could be emerging from the “enigmatic” label he’s come to be described at times in recent years. He was never going to be the vocal leader in the locker room or one who organizes off-ice functions for the team.

“I’m Ovechkin,” the player affectionately known as "Ovi" would toss out in those early, carefree years when he turned into not only one of the league’s most prolific scorers but popular players.

As his scoring touch declined and his team has struggled for stretches, the act wore thin — especially when the dangerous hits he initiated resulted in suspensions. Ovechkin also wasn’t much of a factor in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins in the first round.

None of that will matter if “Ovi” plays a major role in getting the Caps to the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1998.

“He’s our leader,” Capitals forward Troy Brouwer said. “He’s our captain. He should be doing that out there. He got on the board early. He had a couple good body checks making sure his presence was known out there.”