Alex Ovechkin can’t get away from New York Rangers defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. No matter if it’s at Verizon Center or Madison Square Garden, the Washington Capitals captain will have to deal with being the focal point for the rest of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Ovechkin knows that. He also knows he must be better in Game 5 and beyond than he has been so far in the series, as the NHL’s leading goal-scorer has just one to show for his efforts.
“Our line have to create chances,” Ovechkin said. “Everybody know Backy, me and JoJo have to play better.”
Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom and left wing Marcus Johansson were rendered ineffective in losses in New York that made this a 2-2 series going into Game 5 on Friday. Credit Rangers coach John Tortorella for finding a way to shut down the trio that keyed the Caps’ late-season surge.
But Ovechkin put the onus on himself and his linemates to figure out a way to adjust.
“I don’t think they changed how they play,” Ovechkin said. “Of course they put [captain Ryan] Callahan against our line and we all know what he gonna do. He try and make physical contact on you. Girardi and McDonagh, they just stay back and try to block the shots. If we have our chance to shoot the puck, we have to shoot it. Don’t wait one second — or more — because if I’m gonna be in front of the net with JoJo, we still have to shoot.”
Ovechkin tried. After putting five and seven shots on goal in Games 1 and 2, he managed a total of three shots on net in Games 3 and 4. Ten of his attempts were blocked and seven missed the net altogether.
Part of how New York frustrates star players is by taking away shooting lanes and forcing hesitation. But coach Adam Oates talked to Ovechkin on Thursday morning and reminded him that if he continues to play this way, the results will come.
“They’re a good team over there, too,” Oates said. “It’s playoff hockey. Sometimes that happens. You don’t get a point for a game or two and then all of the sudden you go on a four-game streak. That’s playoff hockey. To me, his job is just to continue to play good. That’s it.”
That sentiment is reminiscent of Oates’ positivity about Ovechkin in mid-March when the star right wing was on the wrong end of harsh criticism. Ovechkin finished the regular season with 23 goals in his final 23 games.
Given that he has just two points in the Caps’ first four playoff games, teammates expect Ovechkin to make good on his opportunities soon.
“To create the chances is important, and obviously he only has one shot [in Game 4],” center Mike Ribeiro said. “He’s probably going to have a little bit more [in Game 5]. I don’t think we worry about that.”
Still, Ovechkin and his linemates see room for improvement. He noticed less space to work with in two games in New York.
“I don’t know why, but [at] the Rangers I don’t think our line create lots of opportunity for me, for JoJo and for Backy as well, to find that kind of space, especially in neutral zone,” Ovechkin said. “Maybe we just handle the puck too long; maybe we try to make some cute plays. We just have to play simple.”
Even with home-ice advantage and Oates’ ability to control matchups, it’s not as simple as getting the top line away from McDonagh and Girardi. As the Caps’ coach pointed out, the Rangers’ John Tortorella makes sure his top defensive pair is on the ice to handle Ovechkin.
Oates tries to find more advantageous situations for his top offensive players, but “it’s still difficult because they play those two guys so much. They play 30 minutes.”
But somehow, some way, the Caps must get Ovechkin going. His only goal in the series came on the power play, a fortunate bounce off the end boards.
Amid plenty of secondary scoring down the lineup, the pressure remains on the top line to shoulder the offensive burden.
“Of course we want to score goals and help the team,” Johansson said. “There’s no doubt about that, but I think we’re creating chances and we’re getting our chances to score, but we just can’t seem [to get] the puck in the net. Sometimes it’s like that, and I think if we keep playing the way we are, maybe a little better, we can score a lot of goals.”
Ovechkin knows what needs to be different. “We just have to move around and I have to have a puck with the speed,” he said.
That’s easier said than executed when the Rangers game-plan around stopping Ovechkin, who Thursday was named a finalist for the Ted Lindsay Award as the league’s most outstanding player voted by the players’ association.
Ovechkin is better than a point-a-game playoff performer during his career. Part of returning to that form is learning from didn’t work in the first four games against the Rangers.
“[Game 4] I don’t have lots of offensive chances, but we still have two-on-one opportunity and I still have a couple chances to shoot the puck,” Ovechkin said. “I just have to find a way to create some chances when I have the puck in their zone.”
And put the puck in the net, because that’s how Ovechkin will be judged.