Wednesday, March 14, 2012
And chances were, Ovechkin would score off a one-man rush or a one-timer from the left-wing faceoff circle as much as not. He was the go-to guy on the play, the one you expected to be the finisher.
Fast forward to last night. The Caps are losing to the New York Islanders, 4-1, late in the second period. As the clock ticked under a minute to play in the period, the Caps were moving up ice, Ovechkin one of a group of skaters that included Jeff Schultz, Dennis Wideman, Marcus Johansson, and Brooks Laich. Ovechkin had already touched the puck briefly on the play, moving it across ice to Johansson leaving the Caps’ defensive zone. For the next few seconds it was the Johansson-Laich show, with Johansson skating down the left wing into the Islanders’ zone and sliding the puck to Laich skating down the middle. Ovechkin was more or less the odd wing out on the play, cutting across in front of Laich as the pass was coming through and filling a lane on the left side.
Laich took the shot from the high slot, and Islander goalie Evgeni Nabokov had to make a difficult save. But in having to make that difficult save, Nabokov could not control the rebound, and the puck slid to his right… right onto the tape of the odd wing filling his lane – Ovechkin. From momentum alone, Ovechkin was in a position to sweep the puck past the now out of position Nabokov to bring the Caps within two goals as the second period ended. The play was not designed for him, and in fact was not a first option for Johansson making his pass once inside the Islanders’ blue line. It was opportunism as a product of persistence – finishing his role in the play – that resulted in a goal.
Move forward to the third period. The Caps have closed the gap to one goal and are breaking into the Islander zone as the period was just winding down past the midway point. Joel Ward has trouble controlling the puck, but manages to wiggle it into the Islanders' zone as part of a three-man attack. From the right wing, Ward slid the puck to center Keith Aucoin skating down the middle. With only two Islanders back, Ovechkin is the open wing on the left side. Aucoin slides him the puck, and Ovechkin fires. Not once, and not again after defenseman Steve Staios slid himself out of the play trying to block the first shot. It is the third time – a chip shot just past Nabokov’s right shoulder, not a wicked wrister or a one-time slap shot – that gently settles in the back of the net. It is another example of persistence, of staying with a play enough to get those two extra whacks at the puck.
On neither play did Ovechkin carry the puck while outside the offensive zone. Only once did he touch it at that distance – to start Marcus Johansson on a rush on the other side of the ice that ended with Ovechkin scoring the Caps' second goal of the game. But by being persistent and opportunistic, without the expenditure of energy characteristic of so many of those goals in that 65-goal season, Ovechkin was the finisher on the goal that gave the Caps a breath of life after being down three goals and the one that brought them the rest of the way back from that deficit.
After being his own SportsCenter Top Ten highlight film for much of his first five seasons (in which he scored at a pace of 56 goals-per-82 games), he is having to become a different kind of player. He isn’t as successful off those one-man rushes or those one-timers as he once was. Teams have figured that out. And all that energy used can take its toll on a player.
On two occasions last night there was a player who perhaps used the experience gained as he closes in on 600 games played in the NHL (regular season and playoffs). He wasn’t the highlight reel for five seconds moving up the ice and pulling fans out of their seats that he was four seasons ago. He was the guy who bided his time as his teammates made a play, and he was there for the finish. Not the prettiest goals you will see – both scored on the doorstep by being the last guy on the play – but they count all the same. And for a team needing goal scoring, that is what the Caps are going to need from Ovechkin as the days get longer this spring.
The Alex Ovechkin that fans saw in his first five seasons is gone. It might not be a case of “what’s wrong” with Alex Ovechkin since then as much as it was a case that his results were accomplished in a way unique in this period of system-based, automaton-like hockey. He was, for a moment in time, one of a kind. He was the one-man force of nature that had no analog on any team in the league. And, for that matter, had not seen the likes of in years, perhaps since Mario Lemieux was in his heyday stickhandling up ice and leaving defenders and goaltenders bewildered as he was celebrating another goal, or since Pavel Bure was thrilling fans with mad dashes up the ice that ended in highlight quality goals.
What fans might have been watching last night was a glimpse of the player Ovechkin is to become as he matures. Still a force capable of the occasional breathtaking flight up ice to score a highlight reel goal. But more often than not a finisher, a player who has learned the game, who can let his teammates do the heavy lifting on plays, yet who can finish those plays when need be.
It is the difference between being a force of nature and being a part of its evolution.
But for the Washington Capitals there was that last minute of the second period. Down 4-1, outshot 21-13, having already allowed two goals on four New York Islander power plays, the Caps made a play. Jeff Schultz took a hit to slide the puck to Dennis Wideman. Then, Wideman chipped it off the boards to Alex Ovechkin. From there, a cross-ice pass to Marcus Johansson. As he crossed the Islander blue line Johansson found Brooks Laich cutting to the middle. Laich snapped a shot on Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov, and Nabokov made the save. But he left a juicy rebound in doing so, right onto the stick of Ovechkin who was cutting to the net on the left side. Ovechin swept the puck into the net, and the Caps were within two with 53 seconds left in the period. A play on which all five skaters touched the puck for the Caps, it was a harbinger of things to come in the last 20 minutes.
111 seconds into the third period, Dmitry Orlov went all Josh Bailey on the Islanders. You might recall in the last meeting of these teams, Bailey scored for the Islanders when he stormed down the slot, and the Caps’ defense parted in a scene reminiscent of Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea in the movie, The Ten Commandments. This time it was Orlov steaming down the slot, taking a pass from Marcus Johansson, and with three Islander defenders forming a nice triangle around Orlov, the Caps’ defenseman had a clean, clear look at where he wanted to put the puck. Where he put it was behind goalie Evgeni Nabokov to cut the Islander lead to one.
Then it was Ovechkin one more time. Joel Ward dribbled the puck across the Islander line and pushed it to Keith Aucoin in the middle. Aucoin forwarded the puck to Ovechkin skating down the left side. Ovechkin took a shot…repelled by Nabokov. Another…repelled again. The third time was the charm, Ovechkin chipping the puck over Nabokov’s shoulder to tie the game.
After a scoreless overtime, it was time for the trick shot competition, and in this a player like Matt Hendricks has found his niche. Hendricks has only four goals in the hockey portion of games this season, but last night he Charlie Brown’ed Nabokov, articles of goalie equipment scattered throughout the crease, and backhanded the puck past a prone Nabokov for the game-winning score and the extra standings point. It was Hendricks’ second goal in the Gimmick this season, both of them being game-deciding scores.
-- In case you have not been paying attention, Dmitry Orlov is now third among rookie defensemen in scoring. His 17 points trails only Carolina’s Justin Faulk (19) and Toronto’s Jake Gardiner (21). Orlov has played the fewest games of this trio (51, compared to 54 for Faulk and 63 for Gardiner).
-- Ovechkin is getting better at one part of his game. Recall the indifferent effort in a shot block attempt that led to the only goal in a 1-0 loss to Philadelphia recently. Last night…two blocked shots.
-- A difficult night for John Carlson…on ice for three goals against.
-- The Caps went 64 games without being held without a power play opportunity. It has now happened twice in the last six games.
-- At the other end, this was the second time in four games that the Caps allowed two power play goals (the other coming in the 3-2 overtime win over Tampa Bay last Thursday). In March the penalty killers are only 11-for-16 (68.8 percent).
-- In the battle for territory, the Caps had only nine faceoffs (again) in the Islanders’ zone last night, winning only three of them. Brooks Laich took ten by himself in the Washington end (of a total of 26).
-- Jay Beagle and the off-ice official in the visitors’ penalty box at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum are now on a first name basis. Beagle took three minor penalties last night, all for obstruction type inforations (two trips and a hook).
-- The Caps certainly did not play their best game of the season last night. It wasn’t even their best game this week. But it might not have been as bad defensively as allowing four goals might look. The Islanders managed only 20 even strength shots on goal in 65 minutes of play. If not for the leaky penalty kill, the Caps might have had control of this game much sooner.
-- If you are wondering, yes, that was a career best night for Keith Aucoin. Three assists marks his first three-point game in the NHL. And with seven points in 15 games, it is not out of bounds to think he could set a career best in points for a season (currently 13 in 38 games with Carolina in 2007-2008).
-- Should it have been surprising that the Islanders lost the way they did? Perhaps not. They were 15-1-7 (emphasize the “seven”) when leading at the second intermission of games this season. Now, 15-1-8, dead last in the league in winning percentage of such games.
-- There was that whole third-period horror show, too. The Islanders came into the game having allowed 74 goals in the third period of games and carrying a minus-15 (goals for/goals against). Now, 76 goals and minus-17.
In the end, the Caps won a game they probably should not have won, and they managed to keep the heat on Florida, a 5-2 winner over Toronto last night. A good thing, too, because the suddenly resurgent Buffalo Sabres (6-2-0 in their last eight games) are only four points behind the Caps for eighth place in the East and host Colorado tonight. There is no relief from here on out. Spring is in the air, and you can smell a “playoff” scent.