MONTREAL – It was set up perfectly.
With the game on the line in the shootout, the two leading contenders to win the Hart Trophy, Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price and Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, were going head to head.
The game at Bell Centre on Thursday was hyped as a showdown between the two superstars. That was exactly what it came down to, with a chance for Ovechkin to win the game with a goal.
Ovechkin deked to his forehand, Price extended his pad, and the shootout continued.
What happened next may not have fit the night’s storyline, but it did fit the one the Capitals have written this season, their first under coach Barry Trotz.
Forward Troy Brouwer took his second shootout attempt of the season, beat Price high to the glove side and gave the Capitals a 5-4 victory.
Ovechkin had already made his mark on the game by scoring twice on the power play, the first breaking the Capitals franchise record for career goals. But when he needed a lift from his supporting cast in the shootout, he got it.
That support hasn’t always been there for Ovechkin in the past. But it is now, and that makes the Capitals a dangerous team heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"We have a lot of, I’ll call them 'secondary players,' who are playing well right now," Brouwer said, "[guys] who are doing the right things, putting us over the top as far as getting those wins and giving ourselves a chance to win every night."
The Capitals have won three playoff series in Ovechkin’s nine seasons; they missed the playoffs altogether a year ago. Brouwer said Ovechkin is well aware that many people blame him for that lack of success.
"At this time of the year he’s had a lot of people that have kind of breathed down his neck as far as what he’s been able to do late in seasons and going into the playoffs. So I know he wants to go into the playoffs riding a high streak for him personally and the team as well," Brouwer said. "The fact that us as a team haven’t been able to go deep in the playoffs for a number of years, it’s going to wear on everyone, not just him. But I know he’s the face of our team, our captain, he takes a lot of the onus on it."
Trotz's arrival signaled a change in philosophy for the Capitals, a commitment to play a more responsible game that might better translate to playoff success, and Ovechkin has bought in 100 percent. Forward Brooks Laich has seen all of Ovechkin’s career with the Capitals and considers the change in his game to be striking.
"I think his game is a lot more complete. We’re seeing effort, noticeable effort, all over the ice," Laich said. "Maybe in the past there were times when he had the puck he was very dynamic, but this year he’s really been able to influence the play without the puck. That means moving your feet without the puck, forechecking; especially through the neutral zone, you’ll see him move his feet a lot, you’ll see him backcheck and pick up pucks in our slot and feed our transition game. His wall play has been great getting pucks out; he’s not taking pucks back behind our net and slowing us down.
"I think he’s made a lot of changes in his game to really help us as a team. This, for me and guys that have played every game beside him, is the best I’ve probably ever seen him play."
If Ovechkin is able to accept change, it makes it much easier for Trotz to sell it to the rest of the team. But Trotz pointed to another factor that has helped the Capitals, and it was one that was entirely out of their control.
When the NHL realigned its divisions last season the Capitals were moved out of the former Southeast Division and into the Metropolitan Division. The years of racking up wins against weaker Southeast Division teams allowed the Capitals to enjoy a lot of regular-season success, but it didn’t prepare them for the type of hockey that is played in the playoffs, Trotz said.
But after battling their way into a top three spot in a difficult Metropolitan Division after the win Thursday, Trotz feels the Capitals are better prepared for the postseason.
"You get to the playoffs, you win the Presidents’ Trophy, but you didn’t really play that playoff style because it wasn’t necessary during the season," Trotz said. "With us this year, it seems to have been more necessary. Hopefully we’re more comfortable in those tight checking games, we’re more comfortable in those physical games, those emotional games."
That test is quickly approaching for a franchise desperate to erase disappointments of the past and to help its captain reshape his reputation when the stakes are highest.
For Ovechkin to do that, he will need the help his teammates have provided all season more than ever before.
"I think the teams that win, obviously your big guns are going to get their share, but it’s going to come down to the rest, bottom six forwards chipping in at key times," said forward Joel Ward, who scored twice against the Canadiens. "You need everybody. It’s not just relying on Ovi and [center Nicklas Backstrom] all the time. If we do that we’re in trouble."