It was late in the second period of a hockey game the Washington Capitals had to win Wednesday night, his team leading 3-1, when the Hall of Fame winger and captain threw his body in front of a shot and in one motion from his knees cleared the puck through the neutral zone so as to avoid any danger for his side.
I’m not sure Alex Ovechkin makes that play last year or many other seasons during his stellar career, not sure he embraced such little and yet significant moments, but he is now, and for it the Capitals have evened this best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final at a game apiece.
You want the the greats of the greats at their absolute finest when winning the ultimate prize is at stake, and given this is Ovechkin’s first time in a final since entering the NHL in 2005, he seems intent on reaching such a standard.
Washington played as you might think a team trailing in the series would in beating the Golden Knights 3-2 before an announced record gathering of 18,702 at T-Mobile Arena, meaning the Capitals showed a focus and determination and toughness that Vegas must now combat as things head to the nation’s capital for Games 3 and 4.
Ovechkin gave the Capitals a lead they wouldn’t relinquish when blasting home a power-play goal at 5:38 of the second period, the score coming from what is his rented home with a man advantage, from the half boards on the left side of the face-off circle.
Vegas certainly didn’t offer much resistance to his presence.
I mean, the Knights know that’s where he likes to camp, yes?
But while his first goal of this final was critical, other numbers for Ovechkin demonstrate how important his effort proved. He was credited with five hits and that block of a Colin Miller shot, active from the very first of his 25 shifts and 17:16 of ice time.
There was an aggression to Ovechkin’s play, almost desperate in nature given the long odds of winning the Cup a 2-0 hole in the series would have presented his team.
“I think that’s where the growth of Alex Ovechkin is this year, that those (little things) matter to him on a different level,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. “I think because of the fact we’ve had to lean on him so much this year, he’s growing as a person and growing as a player, but those little things are now important and necessary.
“That block of the shot and the clear is something that, when you’re an elite goal scorer and a captain of the team and you’re doing that, trust me, the bench takes notice. Everybody takes notice. That’s what you want to follow. You want to follow someone who does whatever is necessary.”
Ovechkin was one of several Capitals who played with such abandon, a team that lost its leading scorer in the playoffs when Evgeny Kuznetsov exited with an upper-body injury in the first period after a hit from Brayden McNabb.
As much as the final was about Vegas not taking advantage of countless opportunities — the Knights at one point had it 5-on-3 for 1:09 of the third period and couldn’t score — it was just as much or more about Washington standing tall and strong and stingy in the face of adversity.
The Capitals needed a terrific effort from center Lars Eller (who killed Vegas all evening) and what will, should Washington go on and win the series, be considered the biggest save in franchise history when Braden Holtby somehow stopped Alex Tuch’s shot from open space in front with two minutes remaining and the Knights having pulled goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
“Thank God (Holtby) is our goalie,” Ovechkin said. “He’s over there when we need him, and it was probably the save of the year for sure. Good response by all of us. We lost our top guy (in Kuznetsov) and I’m pretty sure he’s going to be fine. But (others) play extra minutes, extra shifts.
“Whatever it takes.”
It took that and a whole lot more to even this series, including a Hall of Fame player getting a little nasty and proving that 14 years later, one of the greatest to ever grace NHL ice can indeed grow and discover another level.
From his first shift Wednesday night, Alex Ovechkin played as you would expect and want in such a moment.
And for it, we have a series.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.