Alex Ovechkin was streaking down the right wing into the offensive zone, the puck seemingly superglued onto his stickblade.
In his way were longtime antagonists, New York Rangers defensemen Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. Behind them stood Henrik Lundqvist, at the ready.
The smart money seemed to indicate Ovechkin would (A) dance around Girardi or McDonagh, or (B) harmlessly dump the puck into the corner.
At least, that’s what his choices seemed to be.
Instead, Ovechkin put his head down and bulled through the New York Rangers top defense pair. He was off-balance, began to fall onto the Madison Square Garden ice…
And whipped a shot that beat Lundqvist high to the stick side. Goal. A 3-1 deficit was slashed to one and eighteen thousand and six souls gasped at what they had witnessed, as if to say,“What the hell did we just see?”
It was nothing short of athletic genius on a stage that celebrates its history of giving greatness a platform to perform.
That Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals eventually lost Game 2 of the Metropolitan Division Final to the NHL’s pre-eminent regular season team, the New York Rangers by a 3-2 margin Saturday afternoonat Madison Square Garden to even the best-of-seven series at one game apiece, hardly quelled the newly created narrative surrounding the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award candidate.
“On my team, he is,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz told the assembled media inside the Garden’s press conference room after the loss, when asked if the left wing has reclaimed the mantle of best player in the world. “There are so many good players, I get a lot of debate. You have to consider him. There are different degrees, different positions on that.
“Look at left wingers around the league. I don’t know if you can come up with too many better than him.”
They are words that would not have been uttered about Ovechkin at this time last year.
“I thought he had too much glide in his game.”
It was a few minutesafter the Capitals stunned the Rangers in Game 1 of the series with a 2-1 last second win, a match in which the NHL’s leading goalscorer in the 2014-15 regular season wasTHEcentral figure, and Trotz shared his view of Ovechkin while as coach of the Nashville Predators.
Despite Ovechkin’s NHL-best 51 goals, the Capitalscompiled a 38-30-14 record anddid not qualify for an Eastern Conference Stanley Cup Playoff berth, costing General Manager George McPhee and Head Coach Adam Oates their jobs.
In a time in which people need someone or something to blame when things go wrong, Ovechkin was made the scapegoat. Pundits pointed to his minus-35 rating, conveniently ignoring fundamental flaws with the plus-minus statistic. Questions were raised about his ability to lead his teammates to success. Some labeled him as selfish and uncaring.
Trotz saw something something different, something that was far more fundamentally worrisome.
“I wanted him to be active,” Trotz said, before delving into discussions he had with his coaching staff in Nashville. “We talked about how he wasn’t skating and how easy he was to cover.”
For Trotz, who was hired by the Capitals on May 26, 2014–the same day as Brian MacLellan was promoted to GM, the task was to transform Ovechkin into the NHL’s most lethal offensive weapon once again.
And so, coach and player met at the NHL Awards ceremony in Las Vegas. By his admission, Trotz cross-examined Ovechkin for “four or five hours.” When the summit was over, the coach had laid out his plan for his new star.
“I just want to have a plan to get you the puck,” Trotz recalled telling Ovechkin. “So you do what you do when you have it and do what I want you to do when you don’t have it.”
All Ovechkin did in 2014-15 was lead the NHL with 53 goals. This marked the third straight season he led the NHL in goals, and the fifth time overall. Of his 53 goals, he scored a league-best 25 on the power play and his 11 game-winners were the most in the NHL.
And in doing so, drew a comparison to one of the NHL’s all-time legends in Trotz’s mind.
“He’s very similar to Mark Messier,” Trotz said. “Those rare talents that can play a very heavy game [and] intimidate you with [their] speed.
“He can intimidate you with his skill and his physicality.”
Ovechkin put on a Messier-like performance in Game 1,finishing with two points, six shots on goal and 12 attempted shots in18:26of ice time.
He opened the scoring with a power play bullet from the top of the right faceoff circle as Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle backed off. A third period surge by the Rangers culminated with Jesper Fast’s deft deflection of Kevin Hayes’ point shot tied the game at 1-1 with under five minute left in regulation.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Ovechkin was behind the Seventh Avenue net with the puck on his stick, thanks in part to Nicklas Backstrom’s turnover-forcing check on Boyle. Linemate Joel Ward drove to the net and called for the puck.
Ovechkin flicked a pass to Ward, who tapped the feed past Lundqvist with 1.3 seconds left to take the series opener.
In the visiting dressing room after the game, Ward marveled at the play Ovechkin made to set up his game-winner.
“He made an unbelievable pass across his body,” Ward said. “He was almost behind the net pretty much and I just took a hard whack at it. I didn’t know what was going on. I took a whack at it and it went in and sure enough it beat the clock and we won.”
In a series laden with star power, it can be argued Ovechkin has grabbed centerstage.
Through 180 minutes spanning the first three games, Ovechkin has two goals and an assist for three points, 14 shots on goals, 31 attempted shots and 14 hits.
Simply, he has been a tour de force. And in doing so, has earned the Rangers respect.
“We tried in Game 1 to take the space away,” Alain Vigneault said after Game 2. “But it’s a real hard thing. He [had] some good looks [today]; obviously he’s an elite player and he’s going to get some good looks. We’re trying to limit the amount he gets.”
But it’s a task easier said than done.
“We learned we can’t fall asleep on No. 8,” Derick Brassard said. “He’s a pretty dynamic player.”
One that has regained his place as one of the NHL’s best.