TORONTO — Alex Ovechkin is a player with a high degree of hockey skill, but if it ever came down to a game of chance he’d be well-advised to stick to roulette.
At the wheel the tells matter not.
In the wake of the Washington Capitals’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre Monday night, Ovechkin put on a show of confidence when speaking to reporters. Or at least a degree of nonchalance in what looks an awful lot like a crisis.
"Just forget [Game 3] and move forward," said Ovechkin. "Obviously, we’re losing the series but it’s not over yet. We should win this game, but we made a couple of mistakes with a couple of unlucky bounces. But that’s the game. You move forward."
The usual label applied to such displays is "a brave face" but this didn’t apply, not with the eighth-seeded Leafs taking a 2-1 lead in the opening round. Ovechkin said all the right things about knowing what to do, about a bounce here and there, about everyone pulling together, but said all these right things wrong. His lack of conviction was singular and transparent, a bad bluff.
Those only reading about this game without having eyeballed the proceedings might presume this to be so much projecting. But the Capitals captain saw what everyone else in the arena did earlier that evening: the two-time defending Presidents’ Trophy winners were fairly routed over the last 30 minutes of a contest that they had led 3-1 and with a glorious opportunity to stretch the advantage with a full two-minute 5-on-3 power play.
Even when the Capitals ran out to a 2-0 lead on their first two shots in the opening period, you had to wonder if something was just slightly off with a team that was expected to make relatively short work of a wild-card team whose young principals have nary a game of NHL playoff experience.
In the NHL’s centenary, Ovechkin was named one of its 100 greatest players and yet in the first period of Game 3 eight Capitals forwards logged more ice time than he did. With many other stars this wouldn’t be so out of the ordinary but Ovechkin has never been a slave to the 35-second shift.
This wasn’t the function of Washington having to kill penalties and it wasn’t a matter of injury or equipment repair. Nor was it a response to ordinary or poor play—the goal he sniped for the two-zip lead five minutes into the game was vintage Ovechkin, a rocket indistinguishable from, oh, say, 400 or so of his 558 career goals. That’s just how the Caps and their lines rolled—in a two-minute 4-on-4, No. 8’s shoulder wasn’t tapped.
Over the course of the game, Ovechkin’s total ice time caught up but mostly because he lingered longer on shifts rather than jumping over the boards more frequently. Maybe coach Barry Trotz was looking for a matchup, some way of getting the line of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie away from the Brown-Kadri-Komarov line, Uncle Leo being a well-established Ovie antagonist. Maybe Trotz was trying to get Ovechkin on the ice across from Martin Marincin, who had to suck up some of the minutes that would have gone to Roman Polak before he went down with a season-ending leg injury in Game 2.
To whatever degree the Leafs were mindful of Ovechkin on the ice, they nonetheless seemed utterly unintimidated by him. Fans of physical comedy had to love Mitch Marner, giving away fifty pounds, joisting with Ovechkin as they took their places opposite one another on faceoffs—it looked like Marner was trying to crawl up inside Ovechkin’s sweater.
Given that Trotz tried to spread ice time around, Ovechkin probably had a good view of any sequences that should cause concern and will when the Capitals break down the video. Washington defenceman Brooks Orpik is a heel in the classic mode, the number he did on Polak in Game 2 just being the latest on a list of kills (He narrowly missed another when he lined up Marner in Game 2).
The Leafs’ rally started when Nazem Kadri moved up a couple of weight classes and jolted Orpik in the second period. And just before the second intermission, Orpik came completely undone on the tying goal when it looked like he had Zach Hyman locked up in a 1-on-1 at the blue-line but the Leafs’ rookie left winger dumped, chased and retrieved the puck behind goaltender Braden Holtby—Orpik was cleanly beaten and his blue-line partner Kevin Shattenkirk overcommitted in an attempt to support. One touch from Auston Matthews later, William Nylander was putting the puck past Holtby and tying the game three-all.
Tyler Bozak’s power-play goal in the second minute of overtime was entirely in keeping with play in the back half of the night. The Capitals were relatively lucky to even take the game that far, having not registered a shot through the first 13 minutes of the third period, and the likes of Orpik and others certainly not getting any fleeter in pursuit of the Leafs’ young buzz-saw forwards.
It didn’t ring true when Ovechkin said the Capitals should have won Game 3—OK, Washington was poised to win when they went on the 5-on-3 power play but thereafter hung on until they could no longer. When Ovechkin said it came down to a couple of breaks and bounces, he gave his teammates too much credit and the Leafs hardly none at all. No one in the room who heard those words believed it and neither did he.