Who can forget Jack Nicklaus’ near ace on the 16th hole at Augusta in 1986 that led to his Masters win or Mario Lemieux’s goal against the North Stars in the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals?
Tonight Alexander Ovechkin may not have made a play that carries the significance of what Nicklaus or Lemieux did, but for the Gr8 and the Washington Capitals, his highlight reel tally in the third period, that broke a 2-2 tie to lead the Caps to a 5-3 victory in Ottawa, could be one that turns the whole season around for Ovechkin and his club. It was a vintage Ovechkin goal at a crucial time. The Caps were possibly on their way to their sixth straight road defeat, losing their fourth game in five contests under new coach Dale Hunter, and falling to .500 on the season. But as the saying goes, “Great players do great things at big times” and Alexander the Great delivered when his team needed him badly. It was Ovechkin’s first goal under Hunter and only his ninth of the year in 27 games.
What makes this goal even more special is that Ovechkin played perhaps his best contest of the season. He had numerous scoring chances but Senators goalie Craig Anderson repeatedly denied him, including twice in tight after the Gr8 had skated around Senators defensemen. The key words in that previous sentence were “skating around Senators defensemen.” You see the Gr8 has been criticized for trying the same move over and over that routinely has led to blocked shots or poke checks by opposing defensemen, which often send the puck back the other way. Hunter appears to be getting Ovechkin to buy into the idea of using his speed and size to go wide on opposing d-men. As a result, the Gr8 had seven shots on net in eight attempts, many of which came via going down the boards instead of cutting to the middle after crossing the blueline.
When you go back and watch some of Ovechkin’s best goals, many of them have come off of the rush via defensive zone turnovers. The ones against Montreal in 2008 and Buffalo in 2009 come quickly to mind. But something happened to the Gr8’s ability to go from defense to offense during the latter stages of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure in DC and everyone started wondering what has happened to the Gr8. But under Hunter, we are starting to see the Gr8 improve his defensive zone effort and create plays in transition. He still has a ways to go in that end but this is very encouraging.
Not to get lost in Ovechkin’s heroics on Wednesday night were several other comeback performances from the Caps and that to me shows that this club is working hard and more importantly, getting mentally tougher. When the Senators scored two late second period goals to go up 2-1, how many Capitals fans thought, “Here we go again?!” It was easy to think that way given how the team had fallen into a pattern of giving up goals in bunches to lose games over the last month or so.
But on Wednesday, this team took on the resolve of ole number 32 and kept battling. John Carlson didn’t let a poor play on the Senators second goal bother him (to be fair, Dennis Wideman was the primary culprit on that Sens tally) and he finished with a goal and two helpers. Tomas Vokoun (31 saves) had been really struggling and he was partially to blame on all three Ottawa tallies but when Joel Ward took a bad penalty late in regulation he and defensemen Karl Alzner played incredible while shorthanded to preserve the victory. Is this a game that #29 can build off of to get on a run in net? Hunter sure would like to see one of his goalies step up and take over.
Not to be lost due to all of the talk about rebound performances, though, is the play of Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) and Alzner (27:40 of ice time, +2). #19 and #27 have been the leaders from the Capitals this season from an effort and consistency standpoint and Hunter is smart to increase the number of shifts they get, because when you are trying to turn things around, you have to play the guys who are getting it done the most. Dale’s decision to put Alzner back with Carlson has helped #74 improve his game and they are once again Washington’s best defensive duo.
After a great first period by Washington that yielded no goals, the premise of another Caps disappointing road loss appeared on the horizon after 40 minutes with Ottawa up a puck. But a sweet goal by Backstrom off of a feed from Brooks Laich evened it up setting the stage for Ovechkin’s master piece that will make all of the highlights on television and the internet Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
It was a goal the Capitals had to have. It is also the kind of tally that can bring a struggling player new found confidence. It is the type of play that often changes the entire attitude for a team and provides them with a spark necessary to go on a winning streak.
Will this goal by Ovechkin against Otttawa be just that? Stay tuned.