- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Alex Ovechkin is going to play on Thursday. The Washington Capitals couldn’t be more elated.

The Capitals struggled without Ovechkin in a 5-2 loss to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday, with the top-line left wing forced to sit out of the game by the NHL because of his withdrawal from the All-Star Game this past weekend.

For all the strides the league-leading Capitals have made this season — and, really, in a season-plus under coach Barry Trotz — the loss to the Panthers still exposed one glaring weakness: If Ovechkin were to miss any significant stretch of time, Washington’s chances of winning the elusive Stanley Cup will take a significant hit.

“You prepare for something to happen,” Trotz said after the game on Tuesday. “That [defeat] gives us an insight to prepare if something happens.”

Ovechkin has missed only 28 games during his 11-year career, including three seasons in which his participation was perfect, and not all of those absences have been because he was hurt. In fact, Ovechkin plays through injuries quite frequently; Trotz said last week, in disclosing the decision to keep Ovechkin out of the All-Star Game, that he had been bothered by a nagging lower-body injury since mid-November.

That doesn’t mean something can’t happen, and one only needs to look north of the border, to a supposed Stanley Cup contender, to find out what happens when a team loses its star. The Montreal Canadiens were 16-4-2 when goaltender Carey Price aggravated an injury on Nov. 25, causing them to tumble from first place in the Atlantic Division to fifth after winning just eight their last 28 games.

Trotz and Ovechkin have both been adamant that the left wing will be back on the ice for the game against the New York Islanders on Thursday. Ovechkin said earlier in the week that the injury is “not going to heal right away and it’s not going to be done right away,” acknowledging that it’s something that will hamper him, in some regard, as the season continues.

If he were to miss a stretch of time to recover, or to potentially address any other ailment that may occur, the Capitals showed on Tuesday that they’ll have to find some way to reinvent themselves. To avoid a massive reconfiguring of the lines, Trotz simply chose to plug Stan Galiev, who has been scratched for 33 games and spent most of that time on the fourth line, into Ovechkin’s top-line role.

That plan was scrapped midway through the second period, when Trotz bumped Jason Chimera up from the third line and moved Galiev back to his more familiar role. Still, without Ovechkin, the first line didn’t draw as much attention from the Panthers’ top pairing of Aaron Ekblad and Dmitry Kulikov — partly because of the stilted nature of a game that saw the teams combine for 12 penalties, all in the first two periods.

The power play unit, on which Ovechkin plays a large part, entered the game having converted a league-best 26.8 percent of its chances. Washington went 0-for-8 over a remarkable 12 minutes on Tuesday, mustering a confounding eight shots on goal.

Right wing T.J. Oshie, who stepped into Ovechkin’s role on the power play, had three solid looks on the Capitals‘ first opportunity but couldn’t convert. His first shot deflected off goaltender Al Montoya’s chest and into the crowd, a potential second look died on an off-the-mark pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov, and his third shot sailed above the net.

Ovechkin has only scored 11 of his 28 goals on the power play this year — if that holds, it will be the first time since 2010-11 he hasn’t scored more than 47 percent of his goals with the advantage in one season — but his threat draws attention. Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said before Tuesday’s game that they reset the scheme of their penalty kill because of Ovechkin’s absence.

“Their guy in the middle can play way more aggressive toward our slot guy, and they’re obviously tighter between Nick [Backstrom] or Kuzy or whoever is carrying the puck on the wall,” explained defenseman Karl Alzner, who is not on the Capitals‘ power play units but is one of their top penalty killers. “Oshie’s a big threat back there, too. He can hammer the puck, but it’s a little different when a guy who’s got 500 [goals] is sitting there. You have to play a little bit softer with other guys.”

The Capitals are 13-13-2 without Ovechkin and have lost their last five games without him, dating to Nov. 2, 2013. That streak includes a 5-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Oct. 13, when Ovechkin was benched for oversleeping and missing the morning skate.

Washington was also without Backstrom for that game, and on Tuesday, goaltender Braden Holtby and center Marcus Johansson did not play. Those absences underscored the Capitals‘ performances, but none was more noticeable than Ovechkin — and Trotz said Tuesday night that he knows any other potential Ovechkin absence could leave them “vulnerable.”

“He plays a pretty big role,” defenseman John Carlson said. “He wins MVPs and scoring titles and stuff, so yeah, it’s nice to have a guy like that in the lineup.”

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