Over the final several weeks of the 2019-20 NHL regular season, few players on the planet were as hot as Alex Ovechkin. On Wednesday in Toronto, the Caps' captain picked up where he left off, scoring twice and assisting on another goal in Washington's 3-2 exhibition win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
In his last 25 games of the pandemic-abbreviated '19-20 season, Ovechkin poured home 24 goals and sprinkled in a trio of assists, while also sitting out a match, a one-game NHL suspension for opting out of the All-Star Game. Some four and a half months later, Ovechkin - who will celebrate his 35th birthday in September - helped lead his team to victory in its only tune-up ahead of the start of a three-game round robin that begins on Monday against Tampa Bay.
"I can't say I'm totally surprised," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "The shape he came back in after the pause, how he has been working in practice, the energy that he has had, that doesn't come by accident. Obviously he has a gift to be able to score goals, but he put work in. He put the work in for four months and had his personal trainer with him the entire time. It's great to see someone like that - that puts the time and the effort in - get rewarded in those situations."
Ovechkin's first goal came in the waning seconds of a first-period power play. Seconds after narrowly missing from his office near the left dot, T.J. Oshie and Dmitry Orlov combined to tee him up once again from the same spot. This time, Ovechkin lit the lamp to give Washington a 1-0 lead at 8:27 of the first.
Video: CAR@WSH: Ovechkin one-times PPG from the circle
Carolina responded quickly, tying the game just 30 seconds later when Vincent Trocheck nudged an unsecured puck over the goal line. The goal was initially waved off on the ice, but a video review reversed that decision and made it a 1-1 game.
Just past the midpoint of the first, Washington regained the lead for good. The Caps combined to blunt a Carolina breakout, then corralled the puck and went on the attack. From just above the left circle, Orlov fired a hard slap pass to Ovechkin inside the opposite circle. Ovechkin immediately went to Evgeny Kuznetsov, whose easy lay-up from the slot finished off the tic-tac-toe tally, making it a 2-1 game at 10:34.
Video: CAR@WSH: Kuznetsov finishes pretty passing play
Washington guarded that lead past the midway mark of the contest before adding what would prove to be a crucial insurance marker at 12:25 of the second. Nick Jensen interrupted a Carolina push in Washington ice, chipping the puck to Tom Wilson, who carried from the top of the circle in his own end, shaking off a check from Carolina's Jaccob Slavin along the boards and bulling his way into Carolina ice. Wilson spotted Ovechkin on the opposite side and fed him perfectly; the ensuing Ovechkin one-timer made it a 3-1 game heading to the third.
Braden Holtby stopped 12 of the 13 shots he faced before yielding the crease to rookie Vitek Vanecek at the outset of the third. Washington found itself down a man before the four-minute mark of each of the game's three periods, but ended up down two men for 108 seconds early in the third, giving their young netminder an immediate baptism by fire.
Vanecek made a couple of good saves early in the kill, but the Canes pulled to within a goal on the 5-on-3 power play, making it a 3-2 game on a Teuvo Teravainen one-timer at 2:42.
Carolina pushed hard for the equalizer over the next several minutes; nine of its 14 third-period shots on net came before the first television timeout of the frame, and five of those came while Washington was two men down. The Caps quickly regained their footing and closed the door the rest of the way, with Vanecek making one more challenging stop late on Andrei Svechnikov to preserve the one-goal victory.
Washington finished off Carolina without the services of Norris Trophy nominee John Carlson over the final several minutes. Carlson got caught in an awkward tangle of bodies in his own end and skated off on his own, but did not return. He missed the final half of the third period.
Video: Todd Reirden Postgame | July 29
"He just got tangled up there," says Reirden. "He kind of fell awkwardly, and obviously in a situation like this, it's best to just have him leave for the remainder of the game and we'll see how he is doing tonight and [Thursday], and then move forward from there. I'll have a little bit more of an update for you then."
The Caps hit the ice for practice on Thursday at 12:15 p.m., and will enjoy their first full day off in the bubble burg of Toronto on Friday.