Alex Ovechkin’s ice time has dwindled to the point that in Game 2 of the Washington Capitals second round matchup against the New York Rangers, he played just 13:36 (with 3:00 of power play time), the lowest total of his career in the playoffs and not too far from the lowest total of his career, period.
But in the third period Ovechkin was on the ice at the right time, sending a wrist shot past a screened Henrik Lundqvist for the game-winner, as the Caps evened the best-of-seven series at one game apiece, 3-2.
With Rangers forward Brad Richards in the box for holding John Carlson on the previous play, Nick Backstrom won a draw in the offensive left wing circle, drawing back to Ovechkin at the point. The Great Eight corralled the puck, wheeled and drifted to the center of the ice as Backstrom did a nice job tying up Rangers forward Brian Boyle from trying to get out to Ovechkin.
Troy Brouwer went directly to the top of the crease, setting up shop right in Lundqvist’s line of sight. Ovechkin let the shot fly from the high slot, over a sliding Boyle, and past Lundqvist’s catching hand, not that the goalie saw the puck before it was flying past him. The Capitals had a 3-2 lead they would not relinquish.
It was a goal scorer’s goal, and Ovechkin clearly relished the moment. In celebration, he skated to center ice and cupped his hand to his ear, as if to say, “I can’t hear you!” Ovechkin clearly heard the MSG crowd in Games 1 and 2, as they counted down to the eight minute marks of each period, then chanted “Ovi Sucks!”
A mere 27 seconds after their latest taunt, Ovechkin had the last laugh.
Ovechkin finished with seven shots on goal and three more blocked with two hits, but Caps coach Dale Hunter continued a pattern of limiting Ovechkin’s ice time, as well as the ice time of other forwards, while carrying a lead and distributing those minutes to more defensive-minded forwards. The three goal scorers (Ovechkin, Mike Knuble and Jason Chimera) were all in the bottom half of forwards in total time on ice in Game 2.
In contrast, Jay Beagle led the forwards in TOI with 19:58, with Matt Hendricks among others with more ice time than the captain.
The Caps opened the scoring at 12:20 of the first, as Knuble crashed the net and pushed in a nice pass from Joel Ward, finishing a great three-way passing play with Keith Aucoin, started when Ward intercepted a D-to-D pass at the Caps blue line.
Washington extended the lead to 2-0 a few minutes later when Chimera used his exceptional speed to beat Lundqvist (22 saves) to a puck behind the net. Chimera shoved it into the slot where Hendricks tried to go between his legs for a shot. Lundqvist recovered enough to thwart that attempt, but was then out of position as Chimera stuffed it off a Rangers skate, sneaking the puck just inside the goal post.
Brad Richards netted his fourth of the playoffs with 43 seconds left in the first, redirecting a pass from Marian Gaborik past Braden Holtby (26 saves) to cut the lead in half. The Rangers tied it 6:58 into the third on Ryan Callahan’s tip of a Michael Del Zotto shot on the power play.
All that was left was Ovechkin’s heroics.
This game was not as close to the vest as Game 1 was. Perhaps both teams found their legs again after exhausting seven game series in the first round. The teams combined for 32 shots on goal in that first game, but Washington took 25 and the Rangers 28 in Game 2. These two teams are so evenly matched that close games are inevitable.
But the biggest X-factor in this series — perhaps in the playoffs in general — is the play of Alex Ovechkin and his utilization by coach Dale Hunter, and it will bear watching as this series progresses.
It’s not how, but how many. As long as you win.
CAPS NOTES: Two plays that should not go unnoticed: Knuble out-racing 22-year old Del Zotto in the third period at the end of a shift to wash out a potential icing, and Karl Alzner keeping a puck pinned to the boards playing five-on-six as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Both plays will go unnoticed on the stat sheet, but tells you all you need to know about the heart and determination of both players.
Alzner is simply becoming one of the premier defensive players in this league. And Knuble, in what might be his last playoffs in his long and successful career, is simply leaving it on the ice every shift.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.