By Sean Hartnett
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Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin dominated at Madison Square Garden for the entirety of Washington's 2-1 series-opening win over the Rangers. Following Thursday's victory, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz boldly compared Ovechkin's game-changing abilities to Blueshirts legend Mark Messier.
"He's a rare talent in this league," Trotz said. "He's very similar to Mark Messier – those rare talents that can play a very heavy game. He can intimidate you with his speed. He can intimidate you with his skill and his physicality. That's a pretty rare talent. Ovi's been terrific as an all-in player for us this year. It doesn't start with me; it starts with the player. The player has to buy in. I have to give Ovi all the credit."
Rangers fans might not like hearing it, but Trotz's comparison is dead-on.
Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and John Tavares are elite players, but Ovechkin is in a class of his own. He is the defining player of his era. Like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard and Messier, Ovechkin is a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
All it takes is two strides for Ovechkin to lose the defense. No player can match his rapid acceleration. He dominates because of his unparalleled power-speed combination. Most of all, his cannon shot is incomparable to anyone else in the league, because he can get it off from anywhere. It doesn't matter if Ovechkin is off-balance, falling, or hit while shooting – the puck jumps off his stick.
He's a 50-goal scorer in an era when 50-goal scorers are a rarity. When Gretzky had his NHL-record 92-goal season in 1981-82, the league average for goals per game was 4.01. This season, Ovechkin captured his third consecutive Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's leading goal-scorer with 53 in a season where league-wide goals per game was 2.73. That figure is also the league average over the last three seasons.
Alongside Gretzky, Lemieux, Mike Bossy, Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne, Ovechkin is one of only six players to reach the 50-goal plateau six times or more – and he's still just 29. The Hart Trophy finalist is also the fifth player in league history to score at least 30 goals in his first 10 seasons, joining Gretzky, Bossy, Mike Gartner and Jari Kurri – and one of those was the lockout-shortened 48-game season of 2012-13.
Prior to Game 1, Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh spoke about the difficulty stopping Ovechkin and his howitzer shot.
"It's quite a challenge for sure," McDonagh said. "He creates something out of nothing. When you feel you've got good position and good numbers back, he fires a quick shot and it finds its way through three or four guys and in the back of the net."
Just examine Ovechkin's unstoppable opening goal that came on a first period power play. As Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle attempted to close down Oveckhin's space, Washington's captain rifled a scorching wrist shot past Henrik Lundqvist. The puck exploded off his stick.
Look, Lundqvist is the best netminder in the league. He had absolutely no chance of stopping it. Lundqvist was frozen still.
NBC cameras picked up Ovechkin clearly shouting, "All series baby, all series!" at Lundqvist after the goal.
It was a tough night for Rangers fans, who were as livid as head coach Alain Vigneault after Capitals winger Joel Ward scored a controversial game-winning goal with 1.3 seconds remaining in regulation. Shocked Rangers skaters stood frozen after Washington center Nicklas Backstrom was not penalized for a high hit on defenseman Dan Boyle, allowing Ovechkin to set up Ward's buzzer-beating game-winner.
Ovechkin outworked McDonagh to win the puck in the corner. His movement behind the net on had Lundqvist moving from side to side. He then unleashed a clever pass to set up the Ward's winner.
"Obviously, the last few seconds there, I feel like we all stopped when Boyle went down," Lundqvist said.
Vigneault did not address the health of Boyle or what many saw as a clear-cut example of boarding.
"I'm not going to comment on the refereeing," Vigneault said. "Don't ask me about it. Ask me anything else."
Once the bitterness wears off, Rangers fans might realize that this game should be remembered for the show put on by Ovechkin. Trotz sees the same burning desire in the eyes of Ovechkin that many saw in Messier. The Caps head coach has molded Ovechkin into a team-first, 200-foot player. Trotz is also mentoring "The Great Eight" into becoming a true leader.
"He's been a guy that I think maybe has been a little miscast in the past," Trotz said. "Ovi is one of those guys that really wants to win. He's won virtually every award you can win individually. I think he's at a real good time in his career. He's done everything individually. Now, he wants to do something team-wise. For him to grow as a leader, I think that was my mandate with him. I'm gonna share all my experiences with him, teach him how to lead. He's bought in."
Having finished only second to Gretzky in career regular season points (1,887) – and placing third behind Gretzky and Ron Francis in career assists (1,193), Messier enjoyed one of the most decorated careers in NHL history. Having captured six Stanley Cups and willed the dynasty-era Edmonton Oilers and curse-breaking 1994 Rangers to countless memorable playoff victories, Messier is recognized universally as one of the greatest leaders in league history.
Ovechkin is yet to drink from Lord Stanley's Cup. Whereas Messier was surrounded by elite talents during his stay in Edmonton, Ovechkin spent the first half of his career with the responsibility of carrying the Capitals on his back. The current Caps roster is much deeper than years past. Trotz is the best and most experienced coach Ovechkin has ever worked with.
The Great Eight now has the chance to be remembered as a playoff great. If he is able to lead the Caps to a series upset over the favored Rangers and eventually inspire the Washington to a first-ever Stanley Cup championship, his greatness will never be questioned again.
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