TORONTO – Call it the GOATee game.
Alex Ovechkin — the greatest pure goal scorer of all the generations — showed up at the rink with a new look and his old tricks. And his Washington Capitals rose from an 0-3 series deficit and 0-2 Game 4 deficit to inject a furious dose of pushback many doubted we’d ever see from the Metropolitan Division power.
Entering Tuesday’s elimination test with just a single bubble win and reared way back on their heels at 5-on-5 play through the first 10 periods of a surprisingly lopsided series to former coach Barry Trotz’s organized New York Islanders, something clicked with the 2018 champs.
Sustained pressure, a gradual compounding of positive offensive-zone shifts, a crunching Radko Gudas hip check on Cal Clutterbuck, an Evgeny Kuznetsov strike…
“I could feel the push coming,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden would later say.
In the first of what they hope is four consecutive must-wins, Ovie went beast mode. A clapper from his circular office smacked a dialled-in Semyon Varlamov in the mask, and a second from the same spot (you know the one) tied the game.
An Ovechkin-led 2-on-1 rush, during which everyone on their sofa knew there’d be no pass, was punctuated with a wicked wrister, another red lamp, and — scariest of all — a seed of belief.
“Nothing to lose, right?” said Ovechkin, following his second two-goal effort in three games. “It was great hockey by us.
“You never know what’s going to happen.”
The captain’s winner and 69th playoff goal completed a 3-2 comeback and scooted him past both Gordie Howe and Sidney Crosby for sole possession of 18th spot on the all-time list.
“No one can score goals like this player. It’s the other stuff that went on,” Rierden said of his captain.
“There was the stuff that was said in the locker room. There was stuff that was said to the teammates. It was stuff that was said on the bench. It was physicality. It was belief. It was the emotion he showed after he scored the goal. Get in line, ’cause we’re goin’.”
Absolutely, the Islanders have been the superior squad since arriving in the bubble. And, yes, Trotz’s consistent, four-line rollout has three more chances to stomp out his former employer. Math and history peg the Capitals’ chances of rallying from 1-3 and stealing the series at a measly 9.4 per cent, and star centre Nicklas Backstrom is still watching from the lower bowl.
Yet Tuesday felt like a possible ground shift, something greater than a last gasp. And the Isles may lament all those power plays (all five in this game, 18 of 19 in the series) they’ve left uncashed.
“Momentum is a crazy thing in this game, and you have to earn it,” John Carlson said.
The Capitals’ awakening began with scissors and shavers. Jakub Vrana, goal-less all post-season, arrived at Game 4 with a buzzcut. Kuznetsov chopped his down to the wood. Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie went with mean, clean goatees.
“What happens with the team stays with the team,” Kuznetsov said of the mass barbering.
Superstition? Bonding? Symbolism?
“You always try to adapt and do different things that you think can give you an edge physically, mentally. Try different stuff to maybe get yourself out of a funk. That’s happened in every sport for years and years,” Reirden explained.
“So, this was an example of some different things that went on with our team, and there’s obviously many other things that go on behind closed doors. We’ve got a strong leadership group. We’ve got a strong bond in our team and belief. And we know that if we’re going to get anywhere, it’s going to be together. And that was the most buy-in that we’ve obviously had in the playoffs.”
Without rabid fans on hand to unleash their fury, the Capitals have struggled to create their own energy.
It has taken favourites like the Bruins and Blues a few games to do likewise, but they mustered that urgency absent in the round-robin games before putting themselves on the brink.
The Caps left it till the final 40 minutes, and Reirden admitted that self-generating momentum through repetitive, fierce shifts and feeding off one another has proved a greater challenge in the bubble than anticipated.
For at least one night, the Capitals rediscovered their identity, their joy.
Yes, that jump resulted in 63 per cent of Game 4’s even-strength shot attempts. More importantly, it resulted in two more nights (minimum) at Hotel X before they get X’d out.
“I think we just stopped thinking about those Corsi, whatever that stat is, and just trying to play fun hockey. We tried to hold on to the puck, and that’s how we always played,” Kuznetsov said in his second language.
“Maybe I’m not understanding the hockey, but I think that’s how we’re supposed to play. It’s not about the thousand shots — it’s about the possession. It’s about wearing them down, and it’s about enjoying it and having fun.
“That’s maybe not the NHL typical hockey, but that’s how we’re supposed to play. And if we’re going to play like that, we’re going to have joy, we’re going to have fun, and we’re going to have success.”