WASHINGTON—Russian influence in D.C. contests isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it’s apparently still not enough for the Washington Capitals.
For the past dozen years, Alex Ovechkin has been arguably the most dominant athlete in the nation’s capital. But it’s clear that for all of his goal-scoring ability, he can’t single-handedly lift the Capitals to a Stanley Cup championship—or even to the conference finals.
On Thursday night, Ovechkin found a willing accomplice in Evgeny Kuznetsov, who scored two first-period power-play goals in the Capitals’ series-opening first-round game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. But even that wasn’t enough to prevent the Capitals from losing 4–3 in overtime in a game they should have won.
Ovechkin didn’t dent the score sheet. Kuznetsov’s 58-second flurry, along with a scintillating hookup between third-line wings Jakub Vrana and Devante Smith–Pelle were all the offense the Capitals could muster. And when Columbus’ Artemi Panarin beat Philip Grubauer 6:02 into overtime, it opened up old wounds of doubt.
Will Barry Trotz stick with Grubauer in goal for Game 2 Sunday night, or turn to former starter Braden Holtby? Can Ovechkin conquer his postseason demons? And do the Capitals go as he does?
For most of the night, the best news for long-suffering Washington fans was that this is the Kuznetsov the Capitals have awaited since they drafted him in the first round in 2010 (less than a month after Bryce Harper officially became a National).
He’s seven years younger and 30 pounds lighter than his more heralded teammate, but has found a home centering Ovechkin’s line. He’s improved incrementally in each of his four full NHL seasons, and gave Barry Trotz a taste of his playmaking ability in the 2017 playoffs, when his five goals and five assists in two postseason series ranked second on the team.
He continued that progression this season, ranking second on the squad with 27 goals (behind Ovechkin’s league-leading 49) and 83 points. He’s found a home centering Ovechkin’s first line (and enjoyed plenty of scoring chances thanks to the defensive interest opponents devote to the former MVP).
The Capitals needed him Thursday. Both of Kutznetsov’s goals came after a debatable game-misconduct boarding penalty against Columbus’ Josh Anderson that gave Washington a five-minute man advantage.
Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky made a couple of highlight-reel second-period saves on Washington’s Andre Burakovsky and Alex Chiasson to keep the score close. But aside from Kuznetsov’s heroics and Jakub Vrana’s spinning pass to Devante Smith Pelle—who somehow fit the puck through a gap the size of a purse for Washington’s third goal—the Capitals didn’t look particularly sharp in regulation.
Late in the first period, Matt Niskanen simply gave away the puck to a Columbus defender. Several times, the Capitals had trouble keeping the puck in the attacking zone during a power play. And their defense’s failure to clear the zone on a critical penalty kill allowed the Jackets’ Seth Jones to score the game-tying goal with 4:26 left in regulation.
Ovechkin clearly has plenty of gas left in his tank; he tied an NHL record by leading the league in goals for the seventh time in his career this season. But at age 32, he’s become a one-dimensional player (albeit a great one).
In the opening minutes of Thursday’s game, 23-year-old Swede Andre Burakovsky, a first-round pick in 2013, gave the Capitals a boost with his energy. Kuznetsov provided the offense at the end of the first period.
It’s possible that ifWashington is ever going to get past the roadblock of the first two rounds of the playoffs, it will be with younger players like Kutznetsov and Burakovsky doing the heavy lifting and Ovechkin playing a key role on the offensive end.
It wouldn’t be unprecedented. John Elway never won a Super Bowl until the Denver Broncos surrounded him with a stellar defense and running game. Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen had to be traded to the Boston Celtics before earning NBA title rings.
If Ovechkin ever hopes to play a meaningful game in June, he’ll need help. We’ll see if he gets it.