The distance from the far end of the Prudential Center press box to the visiting team locker room is about a half a mile. If you miss the first elevator after the game, you’re in for quite a jog, reaching the tiny locker room that appears lifted from a middle school gym.
That’s usually good enough for a visiting team. But on Saturday afternoon, the pack of media looking to capture the words of Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin was more significant than the space the New Jersey Devils provided the Caps.
(As for your correspondent, he was one foot to the right of Ovechkin, jammed halfway into a trashcan.)
The reason for the crowd? Ovechkin had just become the eighth player in NHL history to score 700 career goals and the second-youngest, and everyone wanted to hear from the man himself on his historic day. Unfortunately the Capitals wasted Ovechkin’s third-period game-tying tomahawk with a series of disastrous late penalties, leaving Ovechkin to answer questions about one of the most significant accomplishments in his career in muddled tones.
In many ways, the milestone has been a welcome distraction for the struggling Capitals, who have lost four straight games and have gone from a team steamrolling the league to one that gives up late leads to the Devils, one of the NHL’s worst clubs.
But while the team has insisted that Ovechkin’s quest, which took off in January with 14 goals in seven games, has not affected them, it manifestly has. In every city (and in the case of the vast traveling media contingent from Montreal, in DC as well) Ovechkin and his teammates have been interrogated with questions about the upcoming crooked number. Teammates have even sheepishly admitted to sometimes forcing passes to Ovechkin in hopes of setting him up for the historic marker.
Ovechkin drawing closer to the milestone did not start their malaise. Outside of some simple bad luck, the Capitals’ struggles have included weak team and blueline defense, errant passes, failed clears and general disaffected hockey — all fixable errors for a team with the talent the Capitals possess.
But suffering through a slump under the spotlight of a month’s worth of nationally televised games waiting for Ovechkin’s indelible moment has not helped.
”To move past it is a good thing for him, for our team, for everything,” Capitals head coach Todd Reirden said. “I know ultimately that’s where his concerns are, with winning games and contending for a Stanley Cup.”
What’s been so perplexing about the Capitals’ two-month dive is the repetitive nature of the errors, along with the players’ and coaches’ reactions to them. They know the symptoms but throw out a myriad of different ailments to the media every day, all while insisting it will make them stronger. Even the addition of defensemen Brenden Dillon earlier in the week hasn’t helped, as they’ve given up eight goals in the two games since his arrival.
The Capitals insist that no dramatic speech is needed to get them out of the funk — they just have to get out of it.
”There’s only one way out right now, and it’s through it,” Tom Wilson said.
Added defenseman John Carlson: ”I think you have to fall back on what you’ve been taught, what you know, what’s been proven to work.”
But perhaps a dramatic moment, one that will be replayed for decades, is enough to remind the Capitals that greatness exists on this team, and it will not last forever.
Ovechkin and the Capitals insist they can win another Stanley Cup, this year, next year, perhaps even in five years. It will not come through lazy neutral zone passes or a myriad of penalties late in a game, all of which doomed the Capitals in their latest 3-2 loss. They have a limited window that will close faster with the kind of sloppy play that has sent them to four-straight losses.
Seven hundred goals is a massive accomplishment for Ovechkin. Two Stanley Cup victories would perhaps be a bigger one for one of the game’s all-time greats.
”Pretty big number, pretty good company,” Ovechkin said of the milestone goal. “So let’s forget about it.”