The Caps Can’t Waste An Ovechkin Night Like That

There’s a version of the Washington Capitals for whom any night that Alex Ovechkin scores a goal is a good night. That was basically last year, when they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014, as a late-season team with nothing to play for except whatever pride came from getting Ovi a step closer to Gretzky’s all-time goals record. This season looked like it would take the same shape: Ovechkin, diminished but still working, picking up as many goals as he could while the Caps waited to see how good their lottery number would be. But instead, despite a goal differential that currently sits at minus-31, the Caps have somehow scraped together enough wins to make their fans care about the next ones. As they fight for the final playoff spot in the East, they need Ovechkin to score not just so that they can say “eight hundred and x goals for Ovi!” but because he is legitimately their best hope for staying competitive.

That’s all to say, a worse version of the Caps could have shrugged off a loss like the one they suffered on Wednesday night, as the Leafs crushed them despite two more goals from their legendary scorer. When that loss, however, puts the Red Wings back in position for eight seed in the East, there’s no time to celebrate Ovechkin moving within 49 of the all-time mark.

Well, OK, there’s a bit of time. Neither of the two goals Ovi tallied (for the second game in a row) came cheap. The first was a Platonic one-timer on the power play, assisted by John Carlson, and the second arrived on this odd-man rush from a turnover, where Dylan Strome selflessly waited in prime shooting position until he had an opening to pass to Ovechkin for the finish. Hearing and watching the celebration, after two decades of goals, is almost enough to make one believe in time travel.

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But for as much as these familiar triumphs ignited the crowd, the rest of the game was of the type that a Caps fan might call “stupid and annoying.” The Leafs opened things with an instant goal, and despite a couple of their best opportunities of the whole game, the Caps couldn’t reply. The second period started with a Toronto counterattack that put them up 2-0. When the Caps eventually did start finding the back of the net, the Leafs were never slow to respond, and near the end they piled on a few more to make the final 7-3.

Like the rest of the solidified playoff teams, this Toronto roster towers over what the Capitals can put on the ice—even more now that they’ve traded one of their three 20-goal scorers, Anthony Mantha. Strome, Carlson, and Ovechkin all have something to contribute, and goaltender Charlie Lindgren is usually better than this. But with no more Evgeny Kuznetsov, no healthy Nicklas Backstrom, and a greatly hampered T.J. Oshie, the Capitals’ roster has disintegrated into the kind of team you get when most of your long-term pieces fade out and you go 16 years without drafting in the top 10. When you do get a special game from your star player, it’s no fun if its only use is to chase a bitter loss with a glug of nostalgia.

It’s never quite made sense to me that goals in the playoffs don’t count for all-time records. (They’re NHL games, after all, and the most important ones at that.) But because of this, we know for a fact when Ovechkin will have to pause his chase of Gretzky. For his career-long project of immortalizing himself as the greatest scorer of all time, the final regular-season game on April 16 is a hard out. But before their seemingly inevitable full rebuild, the Capitals still have a chance to squeeze just a little more success from this waning era—one more high of what it’s like to understand exactly how many games you need to win in order to lift the Cup. As they fight for a first-round series, every step toward Gretzky can also be a step toward Boston—if they make the goals count.

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