Alexander Ovechkin 313 shots were the second lowest of his career

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They have been the faces of the NHL for a decade. Now, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin will meet in the playoffs for just the second time in their careers.

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Coach Barry Trotz was concerned as Ovechkin clutched at his left knee and put no weight on his left leg after the borderline hip check from Nazem Kadri before limping down the tunnel late in the first period. But Ovechkin returned to start the second and could laugh it off after the Capitals beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 in Game 5 Friday night to take a 3-2 series lead.

Ovechkin said he was “all good” and wasn’t worried, and the roar of the sellout crowd when he stepped back onto the ice was the sweetest sound for the Capitals until the goal horn that followed Justin Williams’ overtime winner.

But even more than the roster decisions that face this team moving forward is the realization that Alex Ovechkin might no longer be Alex Ovechkin. This is another in a long history of disappointing finishes for him, but let’s say, first and foremost, that he wasn’t the reason for many of them. He became the scapegoat when there should have been a long line ahead of him.

“That’s what hockey is all about,” Cullen said. “It’s been exciting every time those two play each other, since the beginning. They’re always kind of linked, like Mario and Gretzky. Those are the competitions and rivalries that fuel sports.”

They’re part of the complex feelings that exist about the amiable captain from Moscow and his talented teams: respect for his immense skills and accomplishments, but skepticism that he and this team will ever realize their potential — even as the Caps enter this postseason as the most complete team in the league.

But this series, as he shifted down to the third line and then had zero positive impact in Game 7, was different. He didn’t have that normal burst. He wasn’t a consistent physical force. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury almost always seemed ready for his shot. It was like this too often in this series. It caught the attention of one wholesale NHL jerseys coach who was puzzled by Ovechkin’s lack of impact.

It’s been a curious season for Ovechkin, who hit the 1,000-point milestone but saw his goals total drop to 33 after scoring 50 seven times in his career. His 313 shots were the second lowest of his career. His average ice time of 18:22 was more than two minutes lower than his career average, although his ice time slowly increased down the stretch.

Crosby is still constantly focused on rounding out his game. He’s relentless in his preparation, always working to hone each skill in his toolbox to get incrementally better. He’s never complacent. That’s why he has remained the best player in the world, even as the league is flooded with young star players ready to steal his crown.

Ovechkin will be playing in his second World Cup after dressing for two games the last time the event was held back in 2004. He was the youngest player in the tournament back then, but it gave him a taste of what this one might be like.

Team Russia #8 Alexander Ovechkin White 2016 World Cup Stitched NHL Jersey

This is Russia’s first trip to the semifinals in a best-on-best tournament since the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino. The Russians lost that year in the semifinals to Finland. The Finns also beat the Russians in the quarterfinals on their home soil in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Ovechkin says he isn’t thinking about those losses. For him, it’s all about the present.

Ovechkin quipped that he was watching on TV in the locker room when T.J. Oshie scored on the power play that came from Kadri’s tripping penalty for upending the Russian star. There was considerable debate over whether the hit deserved that two-minute minor, more or less.

“Trotzy probably thought there should have been a major, and I thought it should have been no penalty,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. Rotenberg said the decision of any players under contract overseas to attend the Olympics anyway would be worthy of respect. While the Russian Hockey Federation is saying it will help legally, it could also get some help from the NHL Players’ Association.  

Trotz expressed concern Tuesday that the 3-on-3 format could cause problems for players with lower-back or groin injuries. Ovechkin was playing through an injury for a while but gutted through the pain. He just needs that sliver, that small crack, to change the course of a game. The Capitals were the better team for a majority of Game 1, but because Crosby capitalized on key moments, the Penguins are up 1-0 in the series. That’s the kind of impact he has.

As for Ovechkin, Trotz has seen an evolution in his leadership. There’s a leadership theory that says, “Help others get what they want and you’ll get what you want.” Scoring goals during the playoffs has never been a issue for Ovechkin. His production has never been the problem during the Capitals’ postseason failures.