This late-season surge from Capitals goes beyond Ovechkin
Attention hockey world: it's not just about Alexander Ovechkin.
So while the D.C. crowd was serenading Ovechkin with chants of "MVP, MVP!" after he scored late in Washington's decisive 4-1 victory over Carolina in a playoff-style confrontation Tuesday -- a triumph that kept the Capitals' playoff hopes alive -- the truth was that Ovechkin was merely a peripheral contributor on this night.[+] EnlargeMitchell Layton/Getty ImagesAlexander Ovechkin tied the all-time NHL single-season mark for most goals by a left winger with his league-leading 63rd goal Tuesday night vs. Carolina.
And what a compliment that is for the rest of the Caps.
A team that was the NHL's worst in November and not much better as the calendar flipped over from 2007 to 2008, the Capitals are now demonstrating that they are about more than just trying to sneak into the No. 8 seed. They certainly are not just a team being carried on the back of a single man toward the franchise's first playoff berth in five years.
Ovechkin, with the Art Ross (leading scorer) and Rocket Richard (most goals) Trophies both sewn up, is surely making a compelling case for his candidacy for the Hart (league MVP), regardless of whether the Caps qualify for the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs.
But to suggest Washington is a one-man team would be wrong. For starters, you don't win nine of 10, as the Caps have done at the most important time of the season, if you don't have more than one weapon.
Second, Ovechkin was there for the first 21 games under then-coach Glen Hanlon, and the club started 6-14-1 and looked headed for a lottery draft pick. Clearly, the tactics and decisions of Hanlon's replacement, Bruce Boudreau, over the past 59 games has had an awful lot to do with the resurgence of the Caps.
Finally, GM George McPhee might as well take a bow now, for it appears that while other teams were busy landing bigger-name players, he made the best moves at the February trade deadline. In Tuesday's crucial game against Carolina, the players McPhee acquired -- goalie Cristobal Huet, winger Matt Cooke and center Sergei Fedorov -- all played significant roles.
Cooke laid out several Hurricanes players early in the contest and scored the first goal of the game. Fedorov had two assists and, along with his linemates -- Cooke and Alexander Semin -- bottled up Carolina's top gunner, Eric Staal.
Huet, meanwhile, made 21 saves against the Hurricanes to win his seventh straight decision and move to 9-2-0 as a member of the Caps, supplanting Olaf Kolzig as the team's No. 1 goalie. No other team landed a bona-fide starting goalie at the deadline, and given that it remains the most important position in the game, it's remarkable McPhee was able to make such a key acquisition for a second-round draft pick.
If there was a somber note to the Caps' triumph Tuesday, it's that the stirring victory still left them outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture. You can bet the NHL's New York headquarters would dearly love to see Washington -- meaning Ovechkin -- in the postseason, but the reality is that even with the loss, Carolina remains in control of the Southeast Division if it can win its final two games over Tampa Bay and Florida.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Nick WassGoalie Cristobal Huet is 9-2-0 since coming to the Capitals at the trade deadline.
Washington's best bet for a playoff berth, then, is still to catch either seventh-place Boston or eighth-place Philadelphia. In fact, even sixth-place Ottawa, losers again to Montreal on Tuesday, is in obvious freefall and sits just two points ahead of the Caps. Should the Capitals make the playoffs at the expense of the Senators, it would be a remarkable hockey story, for when the Caps were dead last in the 30-team league in the fall, the Sens were riding high and looking like a team that might not lose a dozen games all season.
Now, Washington is setting a blistering pace, while Ottawa is sucking wind.
The Hurricanes, of course, built their game plan Tuesday night around defusing Ovechkin, and for most of the night it worked, with defenseman Tim Gleason, in particular, impeding Ovechkin's goal-scoring aspirations.
But Cooke and another grinder, Brooks Laich, gave the Caps a 2-0 lead in the first, and after Scott Walker had cut that margin in half for the Hurricanes partway through the second, Semin made it 3-1 on a goal that indirectly involved Ovechkin.
Just over a minute before Semin's goal, with the Caps enjoying a power play, Ovechkin detected Staal poking at Huet's equipment after a save and chased the Carolina sniper into the corner, knocking him to the ice. A brief scrum ensued, and when it was over, the officiating crew chose to send Ovechkin and Carolina defenseman Niclas Wallin to the box, thus continuing the Washington power play.
That left Carolina coach Peter Laviolette absolutely livid, and doubly so when Semin flipped a shot under the crossbar about 90 seconds later to restore Washington's two-goal lead.
The Hurricanes, 9-2-1 in March, welcomed back forwards Ray Whitney and Justin Williams for the game, with Williams making his first appearance in 14 weeks since reconstructive knee surgery. But they couldn't generate enough offense against the surprisingly stingy Caps defensive shield, one that lost rearguard Shaone Morrisonn partway through and still hung tough, while Williams left the game in the third with another undisclosed injury.
With the game all but decided late in the third, Ovechkin thrilled the crowd with his 63rd goal of the season. After Nicklas Backstrom carried the puck deep into the Carolina zone and flung it back in front, Ovechkin retrieved the carom off a Hurricanes player's skate, spun, and fired a shot just inside the far post to make it 4-1.
A lucky shot? Maybe. Or maybe just one of those maneuvers that only the special players can make, the kind of play only a shooter with a constant sense of where the net is amidst the unfolding chaos can make.
The goal didn't decide the game, and it really wasn't Ovechkin's night. This was a night about Boudreau and McPhee and a Washington team that has other stars, like Huet, Semin and defenseman Mike Green, and has found a wave of momentum that could carry the team right into the postseason.
Washington, should it make the playoffs, could be one of those late-arriving squads that even the top teams in the conference wouldn't want to have to face early in the playoffs. Ovechkin would be a major reason. But, gradually, people in the game are coming to understand there are many other reasons to fear the boys from Washington.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
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