For years, Alex Ovechkin was criticized. In 2014, for instance, Mike Milbury called the Capitals star a “one-dimensional player.” A year earlier, TSN’s Ray Ferraro said Ovechkin didn’t have a “high hockey IQ.”
But over time — most notably by winning a Stanley Cup last year — Ovechkin was able to silence his doubters. His game, too, evolved.
That evolution was on full display Saturday in the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes. The 33-year-old did not score a goal, but Ovechkin tallied two assists and had a series of bone-crunching hits to help the Capitals take a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Playoffs first-round series.
Ovechkin precisely found Nicklas Backstrom on the game’s first goal. And in the third period, he delivered a perfect pass to a streaking Tom Wilson, who scored a go-ahead goal.
“If he does pass it, you want to score because if you don’t, he’s got a pretty good shot, too, so he might be upset,” Wilson said. “He’s one of the best players in the game. You’re not going to be that being a one-trick pony. He does it all. He’s a leader, so he does it every night.”
Against the Hurricanes, Ovechkin was active. He fired off eight shot attempts — tied for a team high — and four of them were on goal. But he continued to play with effort, even as his shot didn’t get past Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mzarek.
On the defensive end, Ovechkin led the Capitals with a game-high seven hits. He set the tone early, throwing his body into Carolina’s Brett Pesce near the boards to help the Capitals regain possession. On the ensuing rush, Backstrom passed it to Ovechkin — only for the Russian to whip it back to his co-star for the Capitals’ first goal.
“When your captain is doing that and your leading goal scorer is doing that,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said, “then all the sudden people fall in line pretty quickly.”
Reirden noted Ovechkin’s extra activity helped the Capitals win the Stanley Cup last year. Though Ovechkin finished the postseason with 15 goals, he also had 12 assists in 24 games and used his body to block shots. The added effort was part of a bounce-back year for the Russian, who had only 33 goals in 2016-17 and averaged a career-low in ice time. After that season, many wondered if Ovechkin was on the downturn.
But there have been no such questions about whether Ovechkin was on the decline this year. Before the start of the playoffs, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said the most impressive part about Ovechkin’s season has been his consistency. Ovechkin finished with 51 goals, scoring at least 50 for the eighth time in his career.
This year, Ovechkin had 38 assists in the regular season. Winger T.J. Oshie said Ovechkin draws so much attention from defenders, he’s able to create space for the rest of his teammates.
“He’s able to put it right on the tape,” Oshie said. “I played with him for a long time. Not as much this year, but a long time these past couple years. And my numbers were pretty high, scored a lot of goals and a lot of them Ovi was the primary assist because he drags so many people to him.”
Asked about his passing, Ovechkin said when playing with players like Backstrom and center Evgeny Kuznetsov — both of whom are premier passers — “you learn a lot.”
As for his effort on both ends, Ovechkin told reporters he was just “playing hockey’ — adding that players have to contribute on both ends.
“It doesn’t matter who you are,” Ovechkin said.