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WASHINGTON -- On the eve of the playoffs, someone asked Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau about Alex Ovechkin and the captaincy.
Boudreau was unequivocal about the decision to make Ovechkin captain; it was his team, it was his time.
We say those words out loud again as the Capitals prepare for an improbable seventh game against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night, the hockey equivalent of the "Little Engine That Could":
This is Ovechkin's team, this is Ovechkin's time.
These are the moments great players live for, the moments that define greatness because the stakes are so high and the margin for error so slim. For a player who longs to be considered a great leader, this is a great opportunity. The Capitals will go where he takes them.
Ovechkin said Tuesday that Game 7 will test everyone, including him.
"Well, it's not only for me; it's a test for everybody," he said. "I think everybody knows how important of a game it is, and it's going to be a huge test for all of us."
And he said he won't be making any emotional speeches before the game.
"Before every game, we have lots of guys who can talk, and everybody knows what we have to do," he said. "I have to lead on the ice and in the locker room, but it's not only me. I'm not the only guy that plays hockey here."
It's true. And we offer the obligatory paragraph here about how this is a team game and heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Gritty Maxime Talbot scored both goals in the Pittsburgh Penguins' Game 7 triumph over the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals last season. Capitals checking center David Steckel scored an overtime winner in Game 6 against Pittsburgh last season to force a seventh game.
But it says here the Washington Capitals will be looking to No. 8 to show them that they aren't done, that they haven't started down the path to becoming playoff fade artists.
"I think it's another opportunity for his reputation to grow," Boudreau said Tuesday. "I mean, people love Alex Ovechkin stories, and if he was to rise to the occasion -- and I know he will mentally and hopefully he can on the ice -- then everybody will build that up probably twice as much as it should have been.
"And if he doesn't succeed, they'll build it up twice as much as it should have been in that respect, too. I think that comes with the price of being one of the top players in the league."
Boudreau is absolutely right.
You don't get to breathe the rarified air that is breathed by Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby or Roberto Luongo without having to live with the expectation that you will always be godlike.
And in this moment, the stakes are high for Ovechkin and the Capitals after blowing a 3-1 series lead against a team that finished 33 points behind them in the regular season and scored a whopping 101 fewer goals.
A loss Wednesday will push them toward San Jose Sharks territory, the ultimate insult for any championship-hungry team, the insinuation that you can pad the stats in the regular season but can't bring it when it matters.
"Every series, we have had seven games, and that's unfortunate. We wanted to finish it up a little bit early, but I hope we're going to finish it up tomorrow," Ovechkin said Tuesday. "If you lose, you're done. This is the difference. That's the biggest difference. We don't want it to be the last game of the year tomorrow night. We want to continue."
It's been interesting to watch the Russian superstar early this spring, his first since taking on the "C" in early January.
Although he was sulky at the Olympics, he seems to have warmed to his role as the team's spokesman. He remains more than a little irreverent in a way Crosby never is (we're pretty sure Crosby would never have pointed out Habs goalie Jaroslav Halak's possible shaky hand as Ovechkin did), but that's what makes him such a unique character in the game.
Still, just as the Penguins take their cues from Crosby, the Capitals will be taking their cues Wednesday night from Ovechkin as they try to stop the bleeding in a series they once owned.
He has shown in this series that he can be that difference-maker. Remember when the Caps were down 4-1 to the Habs in Game 2? Ovechkin scored and added three assists as Washington roared back to win 6-5. This was just one game after he'd been held without a shot. In the past two games, though, the Caps have scored just twice despite launching 92 shots at Halak.
On Monday, we thought we saw a little hiccup in Ovechkin's game. He flubbed a couple of passes in the slot and along the blue line on the power play. At one point, he raced around Hal Gill and, instead of driving to the net on his backhand, he sent a pass into the ether.
On Wednesday night, Ovechkin will have to find a way.
If he does, the Caps will roll and will be fully engaged with the Philadelphia Flyers by the weekend, forgetting just how close they came to the edge so early this postseason.
If he doesn't, well, the damage to Ovechkin's reputation, and the reputation of this very good hockey team, will be difficult to measure. But, rest assured, it will be significant.