WASHINGTON – This felt like the moment of truth. A night where we might learn once and for all whether the Washington Capitals were capable of being bigger than themselves.
Even head coach Barry Trotz acknowledged the stakes, saying Saturday’s must-win Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins offered a chance to “get to see your true players. When it’s all convenient and easy, it’s hard to read.”
This series is heading for a Game 6 because his big guy met the moment.
Alex Ovechkin raced out of the gates like he was shot from a cannon, swarming the offensive zone and scoring four minutes in with the one-timer that has made him rich and famous. It was the kind of performance that helps slay narratives.
The Capitals captain was a beast.
“When you see a guy like him … bring that type of energy, you’d better get on board or just stay on the bench,” linemate T.J. Oshie said after a 3-1 victory.
It has to be one of the biggest games in what will become a Hall of Fame career.
Consider the circumstances: This is an organization with no choice but to live in the moment. General manager Brian MacLellan has been operating as if there’s a two-year window to chase a Stanley Cup and one of those years could have ended right here on home ice.
Against the Penguins. In embarrassing fashion. At the end of a season where Washington claimed the Presidents’ Trophy.
Ovechkin was determined not to let it happen once again on his watch, and backed up that early goal by assisting on another. He’s now got five points in this series – three more than Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
More importantly, he has at least one more game to add to the total.
“We knew the fans, the families, all the organization was believing in us and we were believing as well,” said Ovechkin. “We knew we have to play hard. It doesn’t matter what’s gonna happen, we have to play a full 60 minutes. If we’re down one, two, whatever, you never know what’s gonna happen in the end.
“You see our response, and I think we responded well.”
While it may only have been one step towards climbing out of a 1-3 hole to the Penguins, it was a significant one. The Capitals simply couldn’t let a season as good as this one slip away easily.
They held a spirited team meeting on Friday and spoke candidly about their situation.
At least part of the discussion was about a painful past that has seen them repeatedly fall short of expectations while never advancing beyond the second round.
“We all got together after practice and just talked about it,” said veteran defenceman Karl Alzner. “And we just learned that we’re really, really tight. No one wants to be finished playing right now. And I think you’re going to see probably the best hockey that this team’s played this year.”
They faced moments in Saturday’s win where doubt could have crept in. Shortly after Ovechkin made it 1-0, Nicklas Backstrom took a bad penalty 200 feet from his net and Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz tied it on the power play.
He denied Patric Hornqvist from in-close and then came across his crease to deny Justin Schultz with a 10-bell save in the second period. The Capitals largely played in a defensive shell for the final 20 minutes to close out the victory.
One of the more encouraging aspects of their performance was that the Ovechkin and Oshie goals both came with a man advantage – an area of concern in this series. The Capitals have been doing extra video work in an attempt to find parts of Pittsburgh’s stout penalty kill that can be exposed.
“It’s big for us and big for our big guys,” said Williams.
You couldn’t escape the feeling that the whole night was big for Ovechkin, a player who has shouldered an unfair amount of the blame for Washington’s past failures.
It’s part of the job description – heavy is the head that wears the crown – but it has to gnaw at him.
The Capitals have brought in experienced role players like Williams and Brooks Orpik and Mike Richards to help strengthen the resolve in the dressing room. To assist the stars in channeling a will that matches their immense skill.
Facing elimination on Saturday night, we saw the results put to the test for the first time.
“You have to learn from experience,” said Williams. “Tonight was just that. We haven’t really experienced true adversity so far this year – a do-or-die situation, which it was tonight.
“We came through. We have to do it twice more.”
It’s just the kind of opportunity Ovechkin has been looking for.