TAMPA, Fla. — Alex Ovechkin is at long last playing on this stage, and the fact there’s something a little different about No. 8 on this particular playoff run is no doubt a direct result of how far the Washington Capitals have finally come.
“If we’re being serious here,” says veteran defender Matt Niskanen, one day after the Capitals took a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven against Tampa Bay, “I think getting past that second round is a relief for him.
“I think beating Pittsburgh was a huge deal for him. We earned that. That’s a good feeling for all of us.”
Of course it is. These Capitals are here in the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in two decades. It’s a first for Ovechkin and (an injured) Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie and… the list goes on. It’s a first for a bunch of players who, for the two seasons before this, had the best record in the NHL, only to flame out in Round 2, at the hands of Sidney Crosby and the Penguins who went on to win the last two Stanley Cups.
Nobody still with a shot at the Cup this post-season, as of Monday afternoon, has registered more than Ovechkin’s 19 points (tied Kuznetsov, his linemate). Ovechkin scored his series-leading 10th goal in Sunday’s 6-2 thrashing in Tampa, on a never-did-you-doubt-it finish on a 2-on-1, after a nice backhand saucer pass from Kuznetsov. They honestly made it look easy.
Just ask Lightning head coach Jon Cooper what it’s like to play against Ovechkin at this stage in the playoffs.
“Oh, well,” Cooper says. “How do I say this? How many years has he been in the league?”
“Fourteen years,” Cooper continues (close enough). “I think he’s taking 14 years of frustration out in one playoff round – not round, series. You know what I’m talking about.
“His whole playoff season, he’s taking it out on that. 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.”
Though these aren’t the best numbers Ovechkin has produced in a post-season — in 2008-09, he had 21 points through 14 games, compared to 19 through as many games this time — there’s certainly a difference in how he’s feeling, and his buy-in at both ends of the ice.
“He’s having fun,” Capitals head coach Barry Trotz says. “He’s producing. He’s all in. We asked our group to, if you’re going to have success, you have to have all-in contribution, and he has. I think he’s enjoying the run, the playoffs, maybe for the first time in a long time.
“He’s the face of the franchise, and as I said, as the face of the franchise you get a lot of the credit and you also get a lot of the blame. Because of that I think at times it’s taken some of the joy out of it too.”
What he and the Capitals are certainly doing is taking the joy out of it for a Tampa Bay team that came into this series as the favourite, with 54 regular-season wins compared to Washington’s 49.
And if the Lightning are going to register Win 1 of this series, which has to come on the road, they’ll have to slow down No. 8, who had four shots and two points in Game 2, and is averaging a pair of points per game in Round 3.
“The one thing about Ovi is, you can’t allow him to have the puck in situations where he can shoot it clean,” Cooper says. “[Game 2] is the perfect example. If you just give him a 2-on-1, and if you’re going to give a guy of his talent that much time and space to put a puck in the net, he’s going to do it.
“Some of those — Game 1, that shot he takes, like that’s on his tape. And when he does that that, we’ve got to block those shots, and we’re just not doing that, and we’ve got to do a better job.”
The Lightning will get the chance on Tuesday night, as this series shifts back to the capital. When Ovechkin thought about heading back home for a conference final, after that win Sunday night, a broad smile crossed his face.
There’s no question he’s having more fun and feeling lighter this time around, even if his teammates haven’t actually asked him if that’s the case.
“He hasn’t talked about it,” Niskanen admits. “I’m just guessing here, knowing him. He’s a competitive guy, and he’s taken some past failures pretty hard and he’s not going to let this opportunity go to waste.
“He’s bringing it, so good for him. He’s leading the way.”