NEWARK, N.J. | On Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals will play on national television and in “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
The Capitals’ meeting with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden has one more thing going for it: the return from injury of the two-time defending league MVP.
Alex Ovechkin practiced Monday with the Caps at the smaller rink inside the New Jersey Devils’ Prudential Center, and barring a setback he will be on the ice against the Rangers.
“As of today, he is [playing],” coach Bruce Boudreau said of his franchise player. “I think he’s fine, but I haven’t gotten the 100 percent word. But he practiced today, and there is a good probability that will happen.”
Ovechkin was more evasive but did say there is “no reason” for him not to play Tuesday. He missed the past six games with an upper-body strain near his left shoulder suffered in an incident in front of the Columbus bench in a Nov. 1 contest against the Blue Jackets.
Without Ovechkin, the Caps won four of six games but lost twice to the only elite team they faced in that span, the New Jersey Devils.
Ovechkin’s return not only would help the team forget its worst loss of the season - the Devils beat the Caps 5-2 on Saturday - but also could provide extra energy at the Garden, already one of the league’s loudest buildings.
“He’s an exciting player,” Boudreau said. “It’d be like Michael Jordan, watching him in the shootaround in the pregame. People were like, ‘Wow, look at Michael making all those shots.’ He’s an exciting athlete and entertainer.”
One challenge for the other 17 skaters is not to let Ovechkin’s presence change the way they play.
Forced to find new ways to score goals without the league’s best player in that department, Washington relied on its depth and continued to be explosive offensively.
Tomas Fleischmann led the way with five goals in the games Ovechkin missed, but 11 different Caps tallied at least one during that span.
“I think it is just a mindset, really,” Brendan Morrison said. “It is such an easy thing to do when you have your top goal-scorer in the lineup is almost defer. Or if you have the mentality of, ‘Well if I don’t get one, he’ll get one for us,’ which can be treading in dangerous water. If you have the mindset that, ‘Hey I’ve got to go out and contribute’ and he gets his too, then we will be that much better off.”
One potential change for Ovechkin could be his position on the power play.
The Caps practiced with him up front instead of in his usual place at one of the points. Morrison has been taking his place, and Washington is 6-for-13 (46.2 percent) with the man advantage the past five games.
Another benefit since Morrison began manning one of the points: There has been a significant reduction in short-handed scoring chances against.
“I was just trying to do some different things because you knew what the story was going to be - ‘The power play is doing so well, where do you put Alex?’ ” Boudreau said. “So we’re practicing different stuff, and then we’ll figure out what the best situation is for him.”
Last season the combination of Ovechkin and Mike Green on the points for the Caps was devastating for opponents. Ovechkin scored 19 power-play goals, which was second only to Thomas Vanek’s 20, and Green led all defensemen with 18.
This year they have combined for just four, perhaps a result of opponents trying to place more defensive pressure on them (that would also explain the increase in short-handed chances).
Moving Ovechkin up front could alter the way teams have to defend Washington’s power play, and Green in particular could be the guy who benefits the most.
“Mike and [Morrison] right now play well. They control the puck,” Ovechkin said. “It gives us more space, especially Mike and [Morrison] upstairs, but if I have a chance to shoot over there, I might have a better opportunity to score goals.”