WASHINGTON (CBSDC) — Alex Ovechkin lay on the ice and a hush came over Verizon Center.
In his 12-year NHL career, few could remember a time when the Caps’ star left wing didn’t bounce right back up. This time a hip check gone awry from Toronto’s Nazem Kadri smashed into Ovechkin’s left knee and left him motionless. He needed help to hobble off the ice late in the first period.
“How do I want to word this? Everyone is an important player, but there’s only one Ovi,” teammate T.J. Oshie said. “And when you see him down like that you get a little nervous and you get a little upset.”
Washington responded the right way in a 2-1 overtime win over the Maple Leafs on Friday night. Oshie scored on the ensuing power play. Ovechkin returned to the locker room where his concerned teammates watched him testing the knee.
“I was watching TV,” Ovechkin said. “Just have a Coke and enjoy the match.”
It was hard to tell if he was joking. Minutes later, Ovechkin made a dramatic late entrance onto the ice and took the first shift of the second period. Soon after he unloaded on Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner with a big hit that brought the crowd to its feet.
“Russian machine never breaks,” Ovechkin told the Washington Post back in 2006. That motto still stands.
Eventually, what seemed like hours later, Justin Williams slammed home the game winner just 64 seconds into overtime. Mr. Game 7 brought his big-game magic a little early this time and Washington is back on top 3-2 in this best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
The Caps can eliminate the Maple Leafs in Game 6 on Sunday night in Toronto.
“Mr. Game 7. It’s all it takes,” Ovechkin said. “One shot and we get the (series) lead. Right now we going back to play in Toronto and try to win there.”
In a series where the difference between the teams has been paper thin, each has now won twice in overtime. The Maple Leafs were supposed to be too young to compete against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Caps. Not yet. But every time Washington has tried to take control of this series, Toronto has responded.
That happened again after Oshie’s goal. A tricky William Nylander pass in front was knocked down by rookie Auston Matthews, who went backhand to forehand and beat goalie Braden Holtby to tie the game six minutes into the second period. The momentum from Ovechkin’s return had faded, but the Caps were just glad to have him on the ice.
“Ovi’s a horse. It takes a lot to hurt that guy,” Williams said. “Especially this time of year.”
Holtby claimed he knew Ovechkin would be back. The Caps tried not to go to that dark place imagining their captain missing games. Toronto coach Mike Babcock joked that Washington coach Barry Trotz probably thought the Kadri hit should be a major penalty while he didn’t think it warranted a call at all. Split the difference. Kadri earned two minutes for tripping.
Trotz politely said he’d keep his opinion of the hit to himself.
“I tried to get a piece of him, he tried to get out of the way,” Kadri said. “It’s not like I stuck my knee out or got my arms high. It happened pretty quick. I thought it was okay.”
The Leafs weren’t happy with Ovechkin when he returned to the ice. They started chirping at him, implying the injury wasn’t as serious as it looked. But if Ovechkin was milking things, he did a pretty good acting job. He couldn’t put much weight on the left knee. Try to convince Toronto of that, though.
Ovechkin’s hit on Gardiner was proof enough for them.
“He was running around a little bit when he came back, so he must have been fine,” Kadri said.
The game stayed tied 1-1 for 25 excruciating minutes before Williams’ winner. Jay Beagle won a defensive-zone faceoff and the Caps pushed the puck up ice. Marcus Johnansson’s pass from behind the net found Kuznetsov, who then hit Williams coming in late after jumping off the bench. Game over.
Afterward, the Canadian Press reported Babcock strolled to the team bus and told Verizon Center employees “See you in a couple days.” That would be for Game 7 on Tuesday. The Caps hope it doesn’t get that far.
“It’s really close. You need to go into every series expecting seven games and that’s certainly what I expected coming in,” Williams said. “I hope it doesn’t. I hope we’re able to finish it off.”
Follow Brian McNally on Twitter.