Alex Ovechkin continued his recent resurgence with his ninth goal in seven games, and the Washington Capitals pulled back into the final Eastern Conference playoff spot with a 3-0 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Sunday.
Ovechkin was everywhere. He scored a goal. He had an assist. He played on two lines and was on the ice for nearly half the game. And, when the Minnesota Wild had a short-handed break, he hustled back and slid to break up Mikko Koivu's shot on the 2-on-1 break.
"It was a great slide. Like he was playing 'D' all his life," Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter said.
Ovechkin is Alexander the Great once again, and his resurgence couldn't be more timely for the Capitals, who beat the Wild 3-0 on Sunday to pull back into the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
"I think today, I think [it was] probably like two years ago," Ovechkin said. "I have kind of trust in how I play. ... I feel pretty good. I feel sharp when I wasn't in the game. I was fresh and, you know, it's good for me."
|Eastern Playoff Race||PTS||GP||**ROW|
|13. Maple Leafs||75||76||29|
|*Division Leader **ROW = Regulation + OT Wins x-clinched playoff berth|
For much of the last two seasons, the open question has been whether Ovechkin would ever return to the form that earned him two league MVP awards and made him the biggest goal-scoring threat in the NHL.
But now he has nine goals in seven games, and the Capitals are tied again on points with the Buffalo Sabres for eighth in the East, with Washington holding the tiebreaker. The two teams meet in the nation's capital on Tuesday night with just six games to go in the regular season.
"It's going to be the biggest game of the year, for sure," said Mathieu Perrault, who scored the Capitals' second goal, "and we're going to be ready for it."
Jason Chimera also scored for the Capitals, and recent call-up Braden Holtby made 28 saves for his third career shutout and first of the season.
Holtby, sharing time with Michal Neuvirth while Tomas Vokoun recovers from a groin injury, gave a performance that normally would make him the center of attention, but not on a day when Hunter decided to dress only 11 forwards and therefore give the attack a double-dose of Ovechkin.
"It's hard to match up against," Hunter said. "Ovi's out there so much, you can't match one line against him."
Ovechkin played 26 minutes, 19 seconds, his second highest total of the season. The most important sequence came during the Capitals' second-period power play, when he broke up the breakaway and then got the secondary assist on Perrault's goal that made the score 2-0.
Holtby had a close-up view as Ovechkin made up ground on Koivu.
"That's a huge play for our team," Holtby said. "It's definitely a play you really don't expect out of Alex because he's an offensive threat, so to see him battling in the D-zone is huge."
A blast from the left circle in the third period was the Capitals' third goal of the game and Ovechkin's 36th of the season. He recently passed his career-low of 32 goals from last season, but his 61 points are still well below last season's low-water mark of 85.
Matt Hackett, another goaltender not long promoted from the minors, made 20 saves for the Wild. He was playing because Niklas Backstrom didn't make the trip due to a lower-body injury, and because Josh Harding played Saturday in a 3-1 loss at Buffalo.
The Wild were shut out for the eighth time this season and were without their latest injury casualty, center Matt Cullen, sidelined after breaking his right index finger Saturday night in a loss at Buffalo.
Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said it's not time yet to start focusing on next year.
"There's no doubt that we're not quite there," Yeo said. "I think we all know that. But I like a lot of the things that we have. If you want to look at guys we have in the lineup right now, we have a lot of guys that can win, not only to get to the playoffs, but the type of guys you want in your lineup when you do play in the playoffs."
Washington, meanwhile is still in the hunt for the Southeast Division title, which would mean a second or third seed in the East.
Florida lost in a shootout to the New York Islanders on Sunday, cutting their lead over the Capitals to three points. The lead was five exactly one week ago.