As Alex Ovechkin exited the penalty box after his five-minute sentence, the Washington Capitals ' bench stood and smacked their sticks against the boards in appreciation for their captain. Meanwhile, PNC Arena booed. The central, polarizing figure of this first-round series between the Carolina Hurricanes and Capitals has arrived, and while it's no surprise that it's Ovechkin — he's played that role his whole career — how he got there says a lot about what kind of player he is these days.
Ovechkin's contributions tend to come in the form of scoring goals, but after three games he has just the one game-winning tally from the first contest. Instead, his most memorable moments this series have been the two slick feeds that set up goals in Saturday's Game 2, the team-high 15 bruising hits he's delivered and then his devastating punches to Carolina rookie Andrei Svechnikov in a shocking bout 11 minutes into Monday night's Game 3. Remember when Ovechkin used to get criticized for being one-dimensional in spring?
Though the Capitals prefer Ovechkin not drop the gloves and risk injury, he was the rare Washington player who showed some life in Monday's abysmal 5-0 loss, which trimmed the team's series lead to 2-1. "That was big for him to show his emotion. ... We kind of wasted that energy that he created. That happens again, we won't sit back," Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said.
The 19-year-old Svechnikov has been one of the Hurricanes' best players this season, and Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour confirmed he's in the league concussion protocol after the fight. He almost certainly won't play in Thursday's Game 4, and it's unclear if the Hurricanes will have defenseman Calvin de Haan or forward Micheal Ferland, who are both also nursing injuries. After Monday's game, Brind'Amour seemed to criticize Ovechkin for accepting a fight with a player 14 years younger and 40 pounds lighter: "It's tough because I just heard Ovi talk about it; he said our guy challenged him, so if that's the case it's a little different. ... I don't know if there's words exchanged, but one guy's gloves come off way first and that's Ovi's. That's not our guy's."
Then on Tuesday, after Brind'Amour got a chance to speak to Svechnikov, he implied that Ovechkin wasn't being entirely truthful when he said Svechnikov was the one who asked for the bout.
"There's two versions going around," Brind'Amour said. "I'll just leave it at that."
Capitals coach Todd Reirden's response contained a couple not-so-subtle jabs back at Brind'Amour, who appeared to be having words with Washington forward Tom Wilson right after the fight.
"I see it as two willing combatants," Reirden said. "That's part of our sport, and one player won the fight and one player lost the fight. It's always been my stance to not talk negatively talk about another team's players. That's always been a cardinal rule for me as a coach. I don't yell at other team's players from the bench. That's just how I handle things. ... Now we're focused on moving forward here."
And just like that, the first real controversy of the series has arrived, and while many predicted the pugilistic Wilson would be involved, it's Ovechkin, who has fought just four times in his 14-year career. Who challenged who isn't as relevant as both participants agreeing to the fisticuffs, which was clear from the video replay. And for the Capitals, none of that matters as much as the statement that their longest-tenured player and locker-room leader made that he is once again not going to shy away from anything this time of year.
"I think he's pretty much sent a message from the minute he showed up at training camp that he's all in," Reirden said. "That's been through his play and we talked about his play at length from Game 2 with how those plays start before he obviously executes them - some high-end rush plays with great passes. One of them comes off a full-length 200-foot backcheck, another one them comes off the defensive-zone coverage where their defenseman is down the wall, he finishes the player with a legal check and then beats him up the ice to be able to create offense.
"He's been all-in and he's been all-in since the beginning of the season and I wouldn't expect anything less."
Ovechkin wasn't awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of Washington's Stanley Cup run a year ago because he was the team's leading scorer - that was center Evgeny Kuznetsov. It was for how he owned the responsibility of the "C" on his chest by blocking shots, backchecking and then also scoring goals. On Monday morning, he took the Capitals' first hot lap of the playoffs - a tradition before road morning skates that started last postseason. As he finished his solo twirl, teammates tapped their sticks in approval.
"It's been working last year so we decided to stay with it," Ovechkin said Monday morning.
Last year was a lesson in what he needs to do to propel his team forward in springtime, and now that Ovechkin knows the blueprint for success, he's following it to a tee - and then some.
"It's playoff hockey," Ovechkin said. "Everybody plays to win and that's what it's all about."