NEW YORK -- Enough talk about role players, fourth-liners and character-gritty-unsung one-off heroes. With one laser strike, Alex Ovechkin righted the hockey hierarchy, the emoting superstar with his fists in the air and his team on his back. With the lethal suddenness that befits the sniper he still is, Ovechkin rifled a game-winning 45-foot missile past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist with 7:27 to play, giving the Capitals a 3-2 victory in what is now a 1-1 series.
Forget the ice time Ovechkin hasn't been getting, the goals he hasn't been scoring or the impact he hasn't been having. The sleeping giant is awake and he is as explosive as ever. The signs of his hibernation are fading. "Does anyone else make that shot?" asked Capitals forward Nick Backstrom, whose face-off win led to the goal. "I'll take Ovi and you take all the others."
With Washington on a power play, Backstrom won a face-off from Brian Boyle and then ran a subtle pick, allowing Ovechkin to get off a shot before Boyle could get out to block it. With Troy Brouwer screening from just outside the crease, Ovechkin's wrist shot went over Lundqvist's glove. "First I saw it, then I didn't see it and then I saw it," said Lundqvist, who finished with 22 saves. "It was a hard shot. It was a good shot. Unfortunately someone got tied up and he got a free lane. It's the wrong guy to get that opportunity."
And it doesn't matter how Ovechkin's opportunities have been limited by his diminished minutes. In years past, he would be on the ice in nearly every situation, but with his scoring numbers down and coach Dale Hunter preaching a more defensively responsible game, he has seen the ice less. On Monday, Ovechkin played a total of 13:36 and saw the ice for 18 shifts -- 10 fewer, for example, than fellow forward Jay Beagle, one of 12 Capitals who played more than Ovechkin. "Sometimes it's hard," Ovechkin said of his reduced role, "but I have to suck it up. I have to make plays when I can."
In Washington's previous eight games, Ovechkin had managed two goals and three assists. But after recording just one shot in Saturday's 3-1 loss, he produced seven on Monday, including four in the decisive third period. Asked if his star had been sulking over his time on the bench, Hunter quickly dismissed the idea. "No he's not," the coach said. "He'll do whatever needs to be done. Not too many guys could have scored a goal like that from back there."
Asked what he had to do to regain some minutes, Ovechkin revealed the grin that is fashionably missing a tooth, and his satisfaction was easy to spot. "Just score goals," he said. "That's the best answer."
The game also brought redemption of sorts to Braden Holtby, Washington's goalie who gave up some soft goals in Game 1, but was much better on Monday. He stopped Chris Kreider on a breakaway late in the first period and denied Brad Richards from the slot with the Rangers pressing for the equalizer, after Michael Del Zotto hit the iron for the second time in the game. "It was good to be back in the win column," said Holtby, the 22-year-old rookie who hasn't lost consecutive starts in his 16 outings this season. "With Alex, I guess I kind of have the best view of anyone for those types of goals. That was a perfect shot. Lundqvist had no chance. He [Ovechkin] played it perfect, to his credit, and that's why he's one of the best goal-scorers in the league."
The Capitals struck for a pair of goals in the first period to build a 2-0 lead. New York's defense had been generally steady, but a mistake by third-pair defenseman Stu Bickel led to an odd-man rush for Washington. The Caps used a tic-tac-toe passing play: Keith Aucoin to Joel Ward to Mike Knuble to break on top at 12:20.
If Lundqvist has a weakness to his game, it's his unsure play behind the net. Mindful of his shortcomings, he often leaves pucks for his defensemen rather than stop the especially forceful hard-arounds that take him out of his comfort zone. Caps forward Jason Chimera was able to poke a puck off Lundqvist's stick as the goalie ventured into his left corner to fetch a loose puck. Washington's Matt Hendricks then slid it past Lundqvist near the goal line. With the Rangers scrambling to get back into position, sliding defenseman Ryan McDonagh inadvertently knocked Chimera's centering try into his own net.
New York evened the score on goals by Richards and Ryan Callahan before Ovechkin's theatrics. Throughout the game, the crowd in New York berated the sniper with an inglorious serenade. As a road villain, he didn't mind the tune. "'It's fun. I love it," he said. "Fans go to the game to cheer for Rangers. Now we're going to have to do the same thing."
But there lies the difference between the two teams. Apart from Lundqvist, the Rangers don't have an obvious target for derision reserved for a superstar. The Capitals have a target, a public enemy No. 1, a focal point for their successes and failures. Regardless of how well they can play defense under Hunter's system, no matter how well their third- and fourth-liners contribute, and no matter how much of a great discovery Holtby has become, the Capitals need their headliner to have moments such as the one he produced on Monday night. They need their rank and file to be consistently good and they need Alexander to be great.