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For all the fuss about Alex Ovechkin's disappearance from the Capitals' 3--2 overtime loss to Montreal in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal last Thursday, it didn't take long for the star winger to distinguish himself in a 6--5 Game 2 victory on Saturday. Early in his first shift the 6'2", 233-pound left wing barreled through Canadiens' defensemen Marc-Andre Bergeron and Andrei Markov in front of the net en route to getting his first shot on goal of the series. So had Washington's offensive dynamo, uncharacteristically held without an offensive statistic two nights earlier, decided to kick-start his game by getting physical?
"Is my strategy [now] to destroy people?" he asked through his jack-o'-lantern smile, playfully rephrasing the question. "No. My job is to score goals. [But] if I have a chance to hit somebody, I'm going to hit him.... It was Bergeron, my first hit, and you know, he's not that strong [a] guy. So it was mentally good for me."
It was good for Washington too. It's not unheard of for the two-time Hart Trophy winner to seemingly vanish from the ice—he often lurks just off the puck, waiting for a chance to pounce—but he typically reappears the instant a stretch pass finds him at the far blue line. His opening-night no-show, however, wasn't that kind of vanishing act, and there were rumblings that he might be hurt or, worse, a beaten man.
Ovechkin hadn't been the same since he returned from a disappointing Olympic tournament with the Russian national team—a medal-free run that included a 7--3 quarterfinal beatdown at the hands of Team Canada. In 18 post-Olympic matches, he scored just eight goals, a significant drop-off from his career average. "I think [the Olympics] hit him pretty hard," Washington linemate Mike Knuble says. "Everybody knows he's a real patriot. It obviously means a lot to him, and so when [Russia] fell to Canada the way they did, I think he was a little bit flustered.... It took some time to get over that."
But three minutes into the third period, with his team trailing 4--2, the Capitals' captain finally rose to the moment, wedging the blade of his stick between Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak's pads and poking the puck into the net. It wasn't a prototypical Ovechkin strike, but it ignited the NHL's highest-scoring offense just the same. The Caps scored twice more in the period, with Ovechkin assisting on both goals, to push the game into overtime.
"We all love that he relishes the challenge," Knuble says of Ovechkin, who finished the game with four points—and six shots on net. "I don't think we doubted that was going to happen."
After the game, as Washington coach Bruce Boudreau addressed his team's defensive lapses at a press conference set up on the Wizards' practice court at the Verizon Center, the thud of basketballs on hardwood began to echo through the gym. Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom, fresh off his first career hat trick, were shooting hoops on the other side of the curtain hanging behind Boudreau. When they were called to the podium, Ovechkin flipped a no-look, over-the-shoulder shot as he walked away from the basket. The ball rimmed out. A rare misfire for him on what could prove to be one of the defining nights of his career.