Ovechkin looking for 7th heaven
Nothing that happens on Wednesday night can really tarnish Alexander Ovechkin's reputation as one of the most dynamic players the NHL has seen, but it's not unreasonable to contend he faces a statement game against the Montreal Canadiens.
Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals will search for an answer to Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak, who stunned them with 53 saves at Bell Centre in Game 6 on Monday. Ovechkin was held without a point for the second time in the series despite firing eight shots on Halak, and Washington has scored just twice in the last two games.
This is Ovechkin's fourth career playoff series, and all have reached Game 7, with two of them ending bitterly.
Ovechkin delivered the goods the first time he played a deciding game, with a goal and an assist before Philadelphia prevailed in overtime 3-2 in the Eastern Conference quarter-final in 2008.
He didn't get a point in Washington's 2-1 win opening round series clincher over the New York Rangers last year, but he was an offensive factor, firing five shots on goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
In a quintessential "What if?" moment in the subsequent round, Ovechkin skated in on Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with the seventh game still scoreless. Fleury made the save, and Pittsburgh would pour in four goals before Washington responded in kind, with Ovechkin the goal-getter.
The Penguins took the Eastern Conference semifinal with a 5-2 victory, the halfway point en route to their Stanley Cup.
So Ovechkin faces the prospect of going 1-3 in his first four NHL playoff series should Montreal prevail at Verizon Center on Wednesday.
Individual brilliance certain
The Russian has largely escaped criticism in his five-year career, aside from the occasions in which he's skirted the line between aggressive and dirty play, leading to a pair of suspensions. The lack of team playoff success has up to this point been overshadowed by his assortment of individual trophies and his engaging personality.
As well, the Capitals have travelled a long road to become Presidents' Trophy champions this year for the best league record. Even allowing for overtime loss points, they've essentially doubled their point total in a span of five years.
The Capitals were in the doldrums just 2½ years ago, the point at which Bruce Boudreau took over as coach from Glen Hanlon.
Ovechkin's Russian squad was thumped by Canada at the Olympics, so an early exit by the Capitals would mark a double disappointment this season.
It was another great year on the personal front, as he reached 250 goals within five seasons, something only Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux previously accomplished.
Gretzky and Bossy had won the Stanley Cup by the end of their fifth seasons, while Ovechkin's contemporary competition as the game's best, Sidney Crosby, has already captained a team to the Stanley Cup and been part of an Olympic gold medal team.
Should Washington lose, Ovechkin would head into his sixth season with the pressure to start getting playoff results.
But at the same point where Ovechkin is now, Lemieux was just making his first playoff appearance. Lemieux would win the championship in his second playoff appearance and seventh NHL season.
Brett Hull's controversial winner that saw him lift the Cup for the first time occurred in his 12th season. Steve Yzerman now has the reputation as one of the greatest clutch players of all time, but he didn't win the Stanley Cup until his 14th season.
Ray Bourque was gifted to an already stacked Colorado team by Boston in his 21st season.
Hockey up to this point has been a sport where the superstars eventually win a championship. Brad Park, Marcel Dionne and Eric Lindros didn't, but you might be hard pressed to argue that they were of the wattage of players in other sports who never won it all, guys like Ernie Banks (baseball), Dan Marino (football) and Karl Malone (basketball).
So despite all the doomsayers who suggest Ovechkin's style of play could prevent him from having a 15-20 year career, he would still seem to have plenty of kicks at the can left.
Perhaps the most damning thing to be said about Ovechkin so far in his short playoff tenure is that usually by this point a player of his stature has led his team to a dominant short series win. Taken his team by sheer force of will, as it were.
Should Ovechkin and the Capitals overcome Montreal on Wednesday, he'll get a chance to accomplish that feat against Philadelphia in the second round.