Alex Ovechkin has played in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Winter Classic and multiple Olympics. So to call Saturday’s game against the New Jersey Devils, a random home game in the middle of an often forgettable year, the most important one of his career would be a gross exaggeration.
He’s also scored a lot of goals as a member of the Washington Capitals, over 300 and counting. Yet given the way this season, this team and the consensus about Ovechkin’s superstardom have all been hanging precariously in the balance, the hat trick he netted in the Caps’ 5-1 victory was probably the most significant one he’s ever recorded.
The reason it was so big is because his team needed it so badly. Not just to win this one game, but to reinforce the idea that the Caps’ captain was still a threat, still a difference maker.
During Washington’s 5-10-1 start, Ovechkin said and did all the right things. He infamously played a few games with Joey Crabb and Jay Beagle as linemates. He spoke positively of Adam Oates‘ efforts to have him play right wing, even agreeing with his coach’s stated desire to make him less predictable when entering the offensive zone.
And even when his team was floundering and the goals weren’t coming, Ovechkin never displayed anything resembling a lack of effort or desire. With very few exceptions, he was trying to rush past defenders and cut inside (less successfully than in years past, but still), getting into position to fire one-timers and throwing his body around with abandon.
The thing is, the Capitals don’t pay Ovi just to try hard. Whether it’s been mostly due to bad puck luck or he’s not quite the same player he was in a physical sense when he was posting 50-plus goal seasons doesn’t really matter. He’s still the team’s big gun, the guy who fills the stands and sells the jerseys. If he’s not going to rack up the same quantity of goals, he at least has to come through in the clutch.
That’s what happened on Saturday, with Ovechkin accomplishing something that he (kind of surprisingly) hadn’t done for more than two years. Oates talked after the game about how it got the Verizon Center rocking, the fans both feeding off and supplying the kind of energy that’s been lacking in 2013. When Ovi is scoring and turning the clock back a few years, everything seems a little bit brighter.
There’s plenty more work to be done, of course. All that beating New Jersey did was halt a two-game losing streak and get Washington out of last place in the Eastern Conference. It’s worth noting, though, that as badly as the Caps have looked over the first two months of the season, they’re still only six points out of the division lead in the wide open Southeast. Even playing .600 hockey the rest of the way may get them in the conversation for the division title.
The Caps’ shortcomings have been well documented, and Ovechkin can’t fix them all. What he can do is get his teammates and Washington’s fans to believe that there’s still hope for this season and the next few. A hat trick can do that. It certainly did on Saturday, which is why the 11th and most recent one was the biggest yet for No. 8.