By Adam Kilgore,
TAMPA — Alex Ovechkin has over a dozen NHL seasons under his belt, a heap of gleaming silver in his trophy case and spatters of gray in his hair. He is grizzled by the standards of his sport, accomplished beyond what most hockey players can dream. And yet this spring, Ovechkin had discovered a fluorescent new reality. The time of year that once brought torment provided a nightly, blissful awakening. He was 32 years old, and he was a child on his first trip to Disneyland.
He is still in maiden territory, the Eastern Conference finals, but all of a sudden it is pouring rain, the lines are long and all the rides are broken down. A week ago, it was finally the spring of Alex Ovechkin. After a fruitless two games in Washington and a mostly miserable Saturday night at Amalie Arena, it is now teeteringly close to the spring of Alex Ovechkin captaining another Washington Capitals playoff collapse, except a little closer to Memorial Day than usual.
“We just have to win two games,” Ovechkin said just past 10 p.m. on Saturday, as if that is somehow a simple task. The Capitals’ season — and therefore Ovechkin’s chance at a career-validating Stanley Cup — is on the brink after the Tampa Bay Lightning held off Washington, 3-2, in Game 5.
[Game 5 recap: Slow start puts Capitals on the brink of elimination]
Ovechkin blasted a puck past Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy with less than two minutes left, and he played a starring role in the Capitals’ stirring, six-on-five onslaught to end the game. But he made his impact only after an offensive disappearance. For the first 50 minutes, Ovechkin, the franchise pillar, did not put a shot on net.
If you want to know how the Capitals fared, it’s usually safe to start with Ovechkin’s line score. He scored 18.9 percent of Washington’s goals this season; the Capitals require his scoring. In Washington’s two victories in Tampa to start the series, Ovechkin scored two goals and recorded two assists. In the three losses since, Ovechkin has managed only the goal he scored with 1:36 left in Game 5 and one assist.
In perhaps the most important game of his career, Ovechkin did not put a shot on goal until 3:38 remained in the third period. Power plays tend to activate Ovechkin, not only giving him the chance to camp on the left circle and fire lethal shots but also providing energy to the rest of his game. With the Capitals unable to draw a single penalty, Ovechkin never asserted himself offensively.
Ovechkin landed nine shots on net in Game 3. In Game 4, only three attempts forced a save, but he whistled 13 shot attempts. On Saturday night, he attempted just one shot in the first two periods.
“I don’t think they do something special,” Ovechkin said. “I tried to play a different way. I tried to use my body, tried to get a hit.”
[Barry Svrluga: The Capitals have spent all their house money. Do they have anything left?]
When the Capitals became most desperate, Ovechkin enlivened. Barreling down the right side with less than seven minutes left and the Capitals down 3-2, Ovechkin snapped a rocket of a wrister off the post. Shortly after the Caps pulled goalie Braden Holtby for an extra skater, Ovechkin smoked a one-timer off Vasilevskiy’s pads.
“He’ll find ways,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “He’ll get his shots.”
Ovechkin barely came off the ice in the final five minutes, and once Holtby exited for an extra skater, he played every shift. It was telling that Ovechkin played his best hockey once the Capitals had a man advantage.
“He’s our leader. He’s our top guy, our go-to guy,” forward Jay Beagle said. “If we’re down two, you’ve got to put him out there. You have to have him out there and try to get him the puck because we know how dangerous he is.”
So comprehensive were the Capitals’ first-period failings that it may not have mattered what Ovechkin did Saturday night. Rather than lifting teammates, he was a co-conspirator in impotence. Ovechkin did not even attempt a shot, on goal or otherwise, and gave the puck away once. With no power plays for Washington, he played just five minutes.
The nature of Ovechkin’s position and role makes it difficult for him to play well when his teammates are bumbling. While he has been a willing passer and explosive playmaker in these playoffs, his best attribute is annihilating pucks passed to him. When the Capitals are getting beaten to pucks and unable to maintain possession, it renders his finishing moot. Still, he contributed to the opening malaise more than he remedied it.
“With Ovi,” Tampa Bay forward Ryan Callahan said, “your focus is to keep the puck out of the net.”
[Lightning is in control after fourth line steals the show in Game 5]
Ovechkin experienced a breakthrough in Pittsburgh last round, and it has led only to a string of additional breakthroughs. Just like every other day for the past two weeks, Ovechkin has never been here before, heading into Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. It is rare for a superstar of Ovechkin’s experience and caliber to be energized by a new experience so deep into a career. But that is the story of his spring.
“How do I say this?” Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper said between Games 2 and 3. “How many years has he been in the league? I think he’s taken 14 years of frustration out in one playoffs — not just on us, like this whole playoffs season. There’s a reason he has 600 goals and he’s done all these wonderful things in the league. In the past he’s not had playoff success, and when you do get to taste a little bit of it, it really tastes good.”
But those old ghosts, despite this iteration of the Capitals breaking new ground, are threatening. Ovechkin plopped on a bench in the Capitals’ dressing room, wearing a sweat-soaked red long-sleeved shirt with a small tear just below the neck. He exhaled deeply and wiped his face.
“It’s not frustrating,” Ovechkin said. “Of course when you lose the game, you feel bad. We just had a bad start.”
Ovechkin remained outwardly buoyant. Past 10:30 p.m., he had dressed in a gray suit and red tie, a cowlick springing from his head. He waved to a roomful of reporters and grinned. He walked down the concrete hall, toward a waiting bus, toward the next biggest game of his career.
More on the Capitals: Thomas Boswell after Game 4: The Capitals’ overachieving year again threatens doom and gloom Barry Svrluga after Game 4: For whatever reason, the Capitals are not at home in their own building Ghosts of Capitals collapses past have sprung back to life