Ovechkin stellar on defense in Caps’ win over Wild

Shutout keeps playoffs in sight

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Alex Ovechkin’s defensive play is much-maligned, and most of the time the criticism is justified. Known for his offense, the Washington Capitals star isn’t much for dominating at the other end of the ice.

On Sunday night, he saved a goal, and in the process may have played a major role in saving the Caps’ season. His short-handed backcheck was the key moment in a much-needed 3-0 victory over the Minnesota Wild at Verizon Center that put them back into a playoff position with just six games left in the season.

“That’s a huge play for our team,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “It’s definitely a play you really don’t expect out of Alex because he’s an offensive threat, so to see him battling in the D-zone’s huge.”

The Capitals are in eighth place, ahead of the Buffalo Sabres on the strength of a tiebreaker. They’re three points back of the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers, who lost in a shootout to the New York Islanders on Sunday.

That third seed and home-ice advantage are tantalizingly within reach largely because of Ovechkin’s play lately, as the captain’s scoring heated up eight games ago and hasn’t cooled down. But against the Wild, his game-saving play came with him hustling back on defense.

Washington had a 1-0 lead and a power play with the chance to put the offensively challenged Wild away. But when the puck bounced out to defenseman Dennis Wideman, he turned into a pylon as Minnesota forwards Mikko Koivu and Cal Clutterbuck streaked up the ice.

It was a two-on-one with Ovechkin as the one, usually a recipe for trouble. But Ovechkin didn’t quit on the play, poking the puck away from Koivu and preventing what could have been a momentum-turning short-handed goal.

“It would’ve been a great scoring chance,” coach Dale Hunter said. “It was a great slide. It was like he was playing ‘D’ all his life.”

Fans serenaded him with “Ovi” chants that, along with the qualms about his defensive game, were well-deserved.

Ovechkin shrugged it off as just making a play, but teammates pointed out the paramount importance at that stage of the game. Holtby called it a “huge play from our captain.”

“We have a 1-0 lead in a tight game. You don’t want to give up a short-handed goal. He made a great play, big body. He goes down and blocks everything and we keep the game going,” right wing Mike Knuble said. “Great individual effort by him.”

Just more than a minute later, Mathieu Perreault put the Capitals up by two on the power play, and they cruised from there. It was only fitting Ovechkin picked up a secondary assist.

Naturally, Ovechkin supplied the exclamation point, putting the puck between defenseman Tom Gilbert’s legs and past rookie goalie Matt Hackett.

Ovechkin has seven goals in his past five games. Dressing seven defensemen and 11 forwards, Hunter double-shifted him Sunday and it paid off.

“I [trust] in how I play,” Ovechkin said. “I play every third shift almost every game, all game. I feel pretty good. I feel sharp when I wasn’t in the game.”

Ovechkin’s 36th goal earned more “Ovi” chants. A sixth 40-goal season is within reach.

But even without a goal, this was one of Ovechkin’s best performances of the season because of his backchecking play on Koivu. It was the kind of hustle and stick work at that end you might expect from forwards Brooks Laich and Jay Beagle, but Ovechkin pulling it off made it that much more impressive.

Even if it wasn’t pretty.

“The style in which he did it? It’s great, man,” Knuble said. “We don’t really care as long as the job gets done.”

Of course, Ovechkin didn’t do it alone. Holtby made a handful of saves on the doorstep to keep the game scoreless early, and he held on for his first NHL shutout in almost a year.

But this crucial victory was brought to you by No. 8, who drew intentionally understated praise from Wild coach Mike Yeo before the game, noting, “He’s a good player.”

Good at both ends of the ice when the Caps needed it most.

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