It's Time for Ovechkin to Step Up

By Scott Lowe

It’s time for Alex Ovechkin to step up, and he knows it. After being held without a shot for only the fourth time in his career, Ovechkin has taken the blame for his performance in Game 1 of the NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals vs. Montreal and seems ready to make amends immediately.

If past history is any indication, when the fiery Russian puts his mind to it, he’s usually able to take his game to a new level, no matter what the matchup. That was the case two years ago when the hockey pundits lauded the job that Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen was doing to limit Ovechkin’s offensive contribution. And last year when Sidney Crosby turned it on in Game 2 of the conference semis, Ovechkin responded with a hat trick of his own.

“It’s not a secret, everyone plays him like this,” Boudreau said of the in-your-face defensive performance of Jaro Spacek and the backside assistance he received from the Habs’ active forwards. “The deal is that when he’s on top of his game, it doesn’t matter how they play against him. That’s the way we’ve looked at it the 2-1/2 years I’ve been here and why we don’t get him away from the matchups. If he’s on top of his game it doesn’t matter who he’s up against.”

Truth be told, Ovechkin hasn’t been on top of his game for more than a game or two here or there since returning from the Olympics. He just hasn’t looked right and his goal-scoring production has been down, although during the regular season he did a great job of setting up linemates Mike Knuble and Nick Backstrom, who finished with 29 and 33 goals, respectively. And while Ovechkin and Boudreau each gave the Canadiens credit for their effort in Game 1, the Caps’ captain shouldered much of the blame.

“Our line didn’t play well, so we’ll make changes,” he said. “We have to do better. Maybe we were too excited. We didn’t play our game at all, especially me. It’s going to be a different game for us (today) for sure. We can’t win every game. You have to win four games to get to the next round.”

The media is throwing out all kinds of possible reasons for Ovechkin’s lack of production in game one. Fans and media alike have asked if he’s 100 percent healthy. His first two or three shifts in Game 1, Ovechkin looked like himself, throwing his body around, whizzing around the ice and generally causing havoc in the Habs’ end. Then he missed a couple of checks, one of which ended up with him crashing into the open door on the end of Montreal’s bench.

After that he just didn’t seem to move as well and was not as much of a physical presence. That has been the pattern the last six weeks of the season. At times Ovechkin is his amazing self, hammering defensemen through the boards, finishing his checks and just being Ovie. He hasn’t been able to sustain it, however. Is that shoulder injury from earlier in the season still bothering him? Is something else wrong? He brought his personal trainer in from Russia to work with him, so that has escalated the speculation.

“I’m good,” Ovechkin said.

Added Boudreau: “He’s 100 percent healthy, let’s get that out of the way now. He just didn’t have a great game. Every human being sometimes doesn’t have a great game, so let’s just leave it at that.”

So, is anything wrong or is Ovechkin just a ticking time bomb about to go off? Maybe the pressure of being captain has gotten to him? “I think we are something like 30-4 since he’s been captain,” Boudreau said. “Really I think we are making mountains out of molehills. He had a bad game. They played very well against him and hopefully it will be a little different (today).”

Your thoughts Ovie? “We had a few days off and a lot of time to be thinking about the game. Maybe I just got too excited that’s all. (Today) I’m going to be ready.”

As well as Montreal played at both ends of the ice Thursday, great teams and great players usually rise to the top of their games in these types of situations. The Caps didn’t record 121 points and win the Presidents’ trophy by folding up the tent and going home in the face of a little bad weather. They are a never-say-die, come-from-behind group. They’ve shown it in the playoffs the past two years and in their league-leading come-from-behind victory total this season. The Canadiens might have come with their best effort in Game 1, but it still took overtime for them to pull out the victory – and for the game they were outshot, outhit and on the short end of the faceoffs.

You can point a finger at Ovechkin all you want, but Washington played better than .700 hockey without him this year, so there are other areas of the Caps’ game that didn’t meet expectations in Game 1. If you combine the probability that Ovechkin can’t be held down for too much longer with the percentages, which indicate that the Caps’ league-leading power play that clicked at a better than 25-percent rate on the season isn’t going to continue on the 0-for-11 and 4-for-26 skid it currently is in, the reality is that at some point soon something is going to give – in a big way … Like in a five- or six-goal explosion.

Still, this is when the best in the game step to the forefront. Look at the last 24 hours. Team leaders such as Sidney Crosby, Henrik Zetterberg and Zdeno Chara have stepped up and given their teams the lift that they needed. “Alex likes to be in the limelight. Other guys avoid it,” Boudreau said of Ovechkin before Game 1.

Ovechkin clearly is the guy this team feeds off and has vowed to make sure the outcome tonight is much different than what played out Thursday. He’s played the Superman role and come through so often that it’s hard to do anything but take him at his word. And if he’s unable to find the magic that he always seems to conjure up, then it might be time for the Caps to come clean and tell us what’s really wrong with him.