Ovi underdog with SUNDAY bug

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin’s Cheshire Cat grin while he stood on the bench during the final seconds of the Washington Capitals’ 2-1 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday told the story for him and his team.

Ovechkin and the Capitals had clinched a Stanley Cup Playoff berth and a date with the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference First Round, beginning with Game 1 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; MNMT, ESPN, MSG, SN, TVAS). After failing to qualify last season for the first time since 2014, this is not an opportunity they take for granted.

“Yeah, it’s great,” said Ovechkin, the Washington captain. “That’s why we’re fighting all year for that spot. It’s a fun time.”

In his 19th NHL season, the 38-year-old left wing might not have many more opportunities to try to add a second Stanley Cup championship to the one Washington won in 2018, when he also won the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs.

The Capitals, who qualified as the second wild card in the Eastern Conference with 91 points (40-31-11), will be heavy underdogs against the Rangers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy by leading the NHL with 114 points (55-23-4). But the Capitals are used to being overlooked and have already proven many of their doubters wrong by closing the regular season with three wins in four days to reach the playoffs.

So, there may have been some “I told you so,” but no satisfaction in Ovechkin’s smile Tuesday.

“I think he was pretty happy,” rookie center Hendrix Lapierre said. “They’ve been competitive here for a while and I think everyone counted us out this year, so it was kind of a little smile of, ‘You know what? Maybe people counted us out, but we knew we could do it.’”

Ovechkin noted how Washington overcame “ups and downs, trades, all the situations.” Perhaps the most challenging time came before the 2024 NHL Trade Deadline on March 8, when the Capitals sent center Evgeny Kuznetsov, Ovechkin’s good friend and one of the 2018 Cup heroes, to the Carolina Hurricanes after previously moving right wing Anthony Mantha to the Vegas Golden Knights and defenseman Joel Edmundson to Toronto Maple Leafs -- all in deals for draft picks.

Washington was five points out of a playoff spot at the time, but Ovechkin vowed then that the Capitals would continue to fight to get in.

“He wants to win so badly,” coach Spencer Carbery said. “The organization has to make decisions that are in the best interest of the entire organization and the future of the organization and, whether you agree or disagree, that’s irrelevant. But the way he handled it, I think is the impressive thing to watch. ‘O’ didn’t for one second go out there and mail it in. He didn’t give it 80 percent.

“He worked just as hard and competed and was bought-in even maybe more so post-deadline than pre.”

Ovechkin had perhaps his strangest season individually. He scored eight goals in his first 43 games before rebounding to score 23 goals in his final 36 games and finish with 31, setting an NHL record with his 18th season with 30 or more goals.

Ovechkin struggling with his confidence in the first three months of the season was not something his Capitals teammates -- or observers around the hockey world -- were used to seeing from a player who is second in NHL history with 853 goals, 41 behind Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894. But Ovechkin’s resurgence in time to help fuel Washington’s playoff push wasn’t that surprising.

“His play in the last three months has been amazing,” Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie said. “I know for the guys in the room, it wasn't really a question of if, it was kind of a question of when ‘O’ is going to start getting hot here. And, sure enough, it happened.

“… But this team, we drive through No. 8, and if he's buzzing, we're buzzing.”

Ovechkin still doesn’t have an explanation for why his goal-scoring fortunes turned -- or why he struggled to score in the first place.

“I don’t know,” he said. “You can see a couple goals, it was rebounds, it was a situation when redirecting shots. You just have to find a way. You have to battle. You have to fight for it. It’s pretty nice when you get in and help the team to win.”

Ovechkin scored his biggest goals when the Capitals needed him most. He scored the game-winner in a 2-1 victory at the Vancouver Canucks on March 16 and another two goals, including another game-winner, in a 5-2 victory at the Calgary Flames two nights later. During a 6-1-0 surge from March 14-26 that gave the Capitals a two-point lead on the Detroit Red Wings for the second wild card, he scored eight goals.

Ovechkin scored another game-winner (also his 30th goal of the season) in a 2-1 victory at Detroit on April 9 and capped his regular season with a first-period deflection goal that gave Washington a 1-0 lead in the clinching win at Philadelphia.

“Even when the outlook didn’t look great, he never gave up hope, belief or started to make it about him,” Carbery said. “It was always about, ‘How [am] I going to help the team get into the playoffs?’ … When we needed someone to make a big play or score a big goal and we were really up against it as a team and needed wins and needed results, through that stretch he was scoring every night.”

Ovechkin’s 72 playoff goals in 147 games are second among active players, one behind Dallas Stars forward Joe Pavelski, who has 73 in 182 games. He will probably need to add a few goals to his total for the Capitals to have a chance to upset the Rangers.

Ovechkin smiled again Thursday when talking about what to expect in Game 1 at Madison Square Garden.

“It’s going to be fun,” he said. “It’s going to be loud. We all missed that kind of atmosphere and attention. It’s a fun time.”