ARLINGTON, Va. – It looked like a pose stolen from the dramatic end of a figure skater’s routine. The player on pace to become the NHL’s first 60-goal scorer in more than a decade slid backward on his knees, his face buried in his hands.
But it was no act. Alex Ovechkin had just watched a teammate accidentally swipe the puck into his own net in the final minute, the deciding goal in a loss that has put the Washington Capitals’ playoff hopes in peril.
With 12 games left in the season, there are two significant milestones within sight for the Capitals, but it’s hard to enjoy one when the chances for the other are fading fast. Ovechkin needs only six goals to reach 60 – something no one’s done since Mario Lemieux (69) and Jaromir Jagr (62) in 1995-96 – but back-to-back losses have left the team needing a remarkable winning run to make the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
“Whether it happens now, next week, next year – everybody knows that Alex is going to score 60 one day,” coach Bruce Boudreau said Tuesday. “But this is the closest he’s been in his young career to making the playoffs. I think he’s focused on one thing: the team.”
Ovechkin isn’t about to disagree. Heck, if all he wanted to do was score tons of goals, he could’ve stayed in Russia.
“It would be good. I have six more goals to score 60,” Ovechkin said. “But right now it’s all about winning the game, not goals. If you start thinking about goals, then, ‘OK, I don’t care about my team. I care about my personal stats.’ It’s like, just buy a ticket and fly back home and stay over there and play for some team.”
In his third season in the league, the 22-year-old left wing has become arguably the NHL’s most exciting player, a riveting presence whenever he’s on the ice. He could sit out the rest of the season and still probably walk away with the goal-scoring title – his 54 goals were nine better than Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk entering Tuesday’s games – and his 95 points is also tops, three ahead of Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin.
Ovechkin is so compelling that one cable network is betting viewers will want to watch nothing but him when the Capitals host Calgary on Wednesday night. While the game will air in a regular format on Comcast SportsNet, another channel, CSN+, will broadcast the game in a split-screen format with a camera trained solely on Ovechkin – even when he’s sitting on the bench.
“Maybe I shave,” said Ovechkin, who’s recently been sporting a scraggly beard. “It will be good. It will be fun to watch after the game what I do. A new experience for me. It will be interesting.”
Not everyone is gung-ho about the “OvechKam.” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is a marketing whiz who will usually take any positive publicity he can get, but he’s not so sure about this.
“I’ll be honest. I don’t like it,” Leonsis said. “I think hockey is the most team-oriented sport. Alex is one of the guys. Alex wants team achievements, not individual achievements. But this is the entertainment industry and entertainment business, and I think the fans just love every moment that he’s on the ice.
“It’s a big game. We have to win. And I don’t want it to become ‘The Truman Show,’ the Alex Ovechkin show. We want him to play within himself.”
Ovechkin hasn’t let other potential distractions bother him. When he signed the NHL’s first US$100 million contract in January, he promptly went out and scored seven goals in his next six games. Attendance has increased more than 20 per cent at the Verizon Center since he signed the deal.
It would be easier to focus on 60 if the Capitals had secured a playoff berth or were well out of the post-season chase. Instead, much of the talk after practice Tuesday centred on Nicklas Backstrom’s last-minute miscue – the one that caused Ovechkin’s fall-to-knees reaction – in Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh.
Backstrom, who got a hug from Leonsis, explained that he had lost his bearings on the ice and was trying to push the puck behind the net instead of into it. Meanwhile, Boudreau was challenging the notion that the loss had essentially knocked the Capitals out of the running.
“We love it when people think we’re done,” Boudreau said.
Ovechkin will be forever linked to Sidney Crosby as the two young stars who entered the NHL after the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season. Ovechkin was rookie of the year in 2005-06, but Crosby won league MVP last season. Ovechkin has the edge this year, in part because Crosby only recently returned from an ankle injury.
Can Ovechkin win MVP this year? It sure would help if he got to 60. And it would help a whole lot more if his team were still playing in mid-April.
“For us to make the playoffs,” centre Brooks Laich said, “I think he’s probably going to have to hit 60.”