Rangers doing their part to make ‘struggling’ Capitals superstar non-factor in playoff series

NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Watching the first two games of the Eastern Conference First Round series between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, several things are becoming clear.

For one, the Rangers are proving what was believed before the series began, that they are the deeper, more talented team. And partly because of that, the Washington Capitals must be nearly perfect and get a few breaks along the way, to even consider upsetting the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

The Rangers lead the best-of-7 series 2-0 with the next two games to be played at Capital One Arena in Washington this weekend.

Though they were pushed by the Capitals in an exciting Game 2 at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, it never felt like the Rangers weren’t in control. That’s even when the Capitals scored first, tied it in the second period and pulled within 4-3 late in the third.

Part of the reason for that is something that’s also been clear in the first two games. Alex Ovechkin doesn’t appear to be himself. And if he’s not playing up to his Hall-of-Fame standards, the Capitals likely have no chance at rallying for an upset against the Rangers.

“He looks a little bit off,” was the honest assessment of Capitals coach Spencer Carbery after their Game 2 loss. “He’s struggling.”

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Indeed, Ovechkin has been a non factor in this series. He’s without a point, and recorded one shot on goal — early in Game 2 — in the series on 11 shot attempts. He’s had seven shots blocked and three attempts miss the net.

Like Carbery said, Ovechkin is off.

The Rangers deserve credit here. They’ve given Ovechkin no room to operate, swarming him in the areas where he’s most comfortable — from the circles in. He looks confused and frustrated. He’s generated nothing on the power play, often shadowed by Chris Kreider.

“He’s a player that can make a difference in a game,” Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said. “We’re mindful of that and do our best to check him.”

The 38-year-old also looks tired, or perhaps has a physical issue. Simply he just doesn’t look like himself.

NHL.com columnist Dan Rosen made some good observations Wednesday morning on Sirius/XM NHL Radio. He noted Ovechkin seemed “stationary” more often than not on the ice and playing at a “weird half speed.”

“He should on a nightly basis get four or five looks, whether they go in or not,” Carbery said. “He’s not getting those looks. … We’ve got to find a way to get him in spots where it’s him and (Igor) Shesterkin within the top of the circles.”

After being held without a shot on goal in 19:36 in the series-opening 4-1 Rangers win Sunday, Ovechkin showed more jump to start Game 2. Perhaps inspired by linemate Connor McMichael, who came out flying Tuesday night with a pair of scoring chances on the opening shift before scoring the game’s first goal 5:09 into play, Ovechkin looked more of a threat.

But that didn’t last long. Ovechkin was credited with six hits in 19:13, but simply was not a factor. In fact, his most notable contribution was a net negative for the Capitals.

With Washington on the power play and trailing 3-2 late in the second period, Ovechkin turned the puck over in the neutral zone to New York’s Mika Zibanejad. As the Rangers transitioned the other way, Ovechkin was caught standing flat-footed and coasted back in pursuit. Seconds later, K’Andre Miller finished off a beautiful passing sequence to score a shorthanded goal at 16:52.

That ended up being the game-winning goal.

“Big turning point,” Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said afterward.

The second greatest goal scorer in NHL history (853), Ovechkin started slowly this season before coming on in the second half to lead the Capitals with 31 goals. He had 42 last season and 50 the one before.

So, is he finally slowing down? Hurt? Or are the Rangers simply making him a non factor with their stout determined defensive play?

No matter the reason, the Rangers path to victory in this series is that much easier if Ovechkin fails to elevate his game.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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