Yet when it came to a struggling Alex Ovechkin, one of his teammates and his head coach were both convinced he’d make an impact with the team facing elimination in Game 5 on Saturday night – and he did.
Ovechkin was coming off his worst performance of the 2017 postseason: Failing to score, mustering only four shot attempts and taking two minor penalties in the Capitals’ Game 4 loss against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that was missing Sidney Crosby.
Ovechkin slammed his effort, saying he made “stupid decisions.”
Over the next three days, Ovechkin’s playoff performance was criticized by pundits on NBC, while others in Canada and in Washington wondered aloud if the Capitals would be a more successful playoff team if they traded the best goal scorer of his generation.
But Evgeny Kuznetsov, Ovechkin’s teammate? He believed in him, to the point where he guaranteed that Ovechkin would score in Game 5.
At 7:47 of the third period, just 27 seconds after Kuznetsov himself gave Washington a 3-2 lead, Ovechkin ripped a shot from high in the zone past Marc-Andre Fleury for his fifth of the playoffs – a critical bit of breathing room for a Capitals team that played with a previously unseen confidence in the third period of their 4-2 win, avoiding elimination and beating the Penguins with Sidney Crosby back in the lineup.
“You still don’t trust me?” said Kuznetsov, when asked about his prediction. “I know him pretty well. Lots of talk around and I know he gonna step up for sure. You can see how he plays today. That’s our captain.”
Ovechkin was one of several star players who led the Capitals over Pittsburgh on Saturday night. For the first time in the series, they had the big names carrying play and the goaltender who was stopping everything: Goals from Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, and clutch netminding from Braden Holtby (20 saves) in the third period.
“When your top guys make a difference, it motivates everybody to want to go to the next level, as far as their game. You’re sitting next to a guy who elevated his game, you better elevate your game,” said coach Barry Trotz. “That’s what good leadership does. Our leaders led.”
Count the head coach among those leaders.
Trotz had been outmaneuvered for most of the series by the Penguins’ Mike Sullivan, and the hockey punditry thought he lost his damn mind before Game 5. He was dropping Ovechkin down to a third line with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson, taking his most lethal offensive weapon and placing him with two checking forwards.
But Trotz believed that’s what his team, and his star captain, needed.
And he believed that Ovechkin would understand.
“I talked to him. I was saying we need to change it up. Top players make people better. I said to him that it’s no different than Phil Kessel playing on the third line for [Pittsburgh]. It had a lot of impact for the Penguins, throughout the playoffs. Before this game, we had one assist from our bottom six guys.”
Against the Penguins in Game 5, Eller had two assists and Ovechkin had a goal. Meanwhile, Andre Burakovsky, who was elevated to the team’s top line, responded with a goal and an assist on Backstrom’s snipe.
All the coach wanted to accomplish was better offensive balance, and that’s what was achieved. “It was more [about] our lineup, getting more contributions. No different than Pittsburgh. They have multiple lines that can contribute,” he said. “I was looking to give us a little more depth, scoring. When we met as a coaching staff, we wanted to get more scoring throughout our lines, and tonight we did.”
As bold, desperate lineup decisions go, Trotz had to feel pretty good about this one.
“I think it worked. We won the game,” said Burakovsky.
Winning two more against the Penguins will be a tall order. Hell, the Capitals won Game 5 last season too, only to be eliminated back in Pittsburgh in Game 6.
Crosby, held without an even-strength point, will be better. Evgeni Malkin, whose line did a horrendous job establishing pressure in the Capitals’ zone all night, will be better. And while he was human for the first time in Game 5, Fleury has played some of his best postseason hockey at home.
But if the Capitals’ leaders lead, as they did in Game 5, they’ve shown what Washington is capable of accomplishing in the postseason.
“I live for these moments, for those type of games,” said Kuznetsov.
And what’s his prediction for Ovechkin in Game 6 on Monday night?
“He’s gonna score two goals.”
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