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Slowing down a superstar

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – The Canadiens are one of only a few teams that have managed to stymie Alex Ovechkin so far this season. They’ll have to do it again on Thursday night.

That will undoubtedly prove easier said than done as the Russian superstar continues to torment the opposition every time he’s on the ice, pacing the Washington Capitals to prime position in their race to secure a playoff spot after failing to qualify for postseason play last year.

Michel Therrien’s troops are cognizant of what Ovechkin is capable of. Like the rest of the hockey world, they saw the 29-year-old reach the 50-goal plateau for the sixth time in his career (and a second straight season) on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center. Only five other players in League history have recorded as many 50-goal campaigns – Mike Bossy (9), Wayne Gretzky (9), Marcel Dionne (6), Guy Lafleur (6) and Mario Lemieux (6).

“He’s a great goal scorer. You definitely know when he’s on the ice. He can score from everywhere. He shoots from everywhere. You’ve got to be aware of him every time he’s out there,” offered Tom Gilbert, who could return to the Canadiens’ lineup on Thursday night for the first since sustaining a fractured jaw on March 21. “The key, though, is not to play any different. You can’t take yourself out of the play, and you definitely need to take more time and space away from him. That’s what you need to do.”

The Canadiens have done a good job of that through two meetings with the Capitals this season, winning a pair of close games against Barry Trotz’s contingent. Ovechkin has been held without a point in both affairs, despite registering 12 total shots on goal, including eight in their last tilt alone back on January 31. Only two other teams have managed to keep Ovechkin off the scoresheet entirely in 2014-15 – the Detroit Red Wings and the Vancouver Canucks. The Calgary Flames also haven’t afforded the Capitals’ No. 8 a chance to light the lamp either.

“[What Ovechkin has accomplished] is really something. We saw the names of the guys who’ve managed to score 50 goals at least six times in their career. It’s incredible,” praised David Desharnais, who ranks sixth on the Canadiens with 13 goals in 77 games this season. “Those guys did it when goaltenders weren’t necessarily as strong as they are now. That doesn’t take anything away from them, but it says a lot about Ovechkin.”

It certainly does. Not only does the 10-year NHL veteran currently lead the League in the goal scoring department, but he also sits atop the circuit with 22 power play tallies, 11 game-winning markers and 374 shots on goal, too. His 77 total points also have him ranked second in the NHL alongside John Tavares, two points back of leader Sidney Crosby.

With stats like that, you can bet the likes of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov will be charged with shutting down the three-time Hart Trophy and four-time Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy winner from the start. An elite talent in his own right, Subban relishes matchups like these.

“I’m always the type of player that likes to get up to play the best player in the league. That’s how you test yourself. He’s an impact player. That’s a challenge. But, we’ve played them before,” stressed Subban, who is just one goal shy of establishing a new career-high for goals in a single season after scoring his 14th goal of the year on Monday night. “Everybody on the ice has to do the job. We just can’t give him much room. When we do that, it’s frustrating.”

Slowing down the League’s most dynamic player – and completing the season sweep of the Capitals – would be the best way to put a lacklustre performance against the Tampa Bay Lightning behind them for good. Washington remains a possible first-round opponent for the CH, so failing to deliver the goods for a second straight outing simply isn’t an option.

“Right now, it’s just a matter of executing the game plan every night and making sure that we’re sharp. At this point of the year, the details are important,” explained Subban, who is still seeking his first career regular season goal against Washington. “We’ve got to understand our system, where we need to be, what we need to do, and the importance of communicating that on the ice.”

That’s something Gilbert emphasized on Wednesday, too.

“It’s always the little things that make the biggest difference,” concluded Gilbert. “It’s near the end of the year and a lot of guys are excited about the playoffs. You’ve got to make sure you play your best hockey going forward. Every game is so important. Every game you need 20 guys going.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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