BROSSARD – Thirteen points may separate the Canadiens and Capitals in the Eastern Conference standings, but the league’s most dynamic offensive threat, Alex Ovechkin, can make any gap in points seem negligible when he’s on top of his game.
With 16 goals and 23 points in his last 14 games, the Russian superstar is making up for a slow start to the 2012-13 campaign, pacing the southeast division-leading Capitals to four consecutive wins heading into Tuesday's game against the Habs.
“Playing against [Ovechkin] is always a huge challenge,” confirmed Habs defenseman and fellow countryman Andrei Markov after Tuesday's optional morning skate. “He’s one of the best players in the world. It’s fun. He’s on fire right now and his team is playing very well. We’ll have to be ready.”
Having thrived all season on making adjustments to their plan on a game-by-game basis as opposed to altering it to defend against a single player, the Canadiens are still well aware of what Ovechkin brings to the table and they’ve strategized accordingly.
“We know their star player is playing like one of the best players in the league right now and we need to be able contain him. Obviously, he makes their offense go. He’s put a lot of pucks in the net recently, and we’ve got to keep them out,” said forward Max Pacioretty, who confirmed he’d be ready to go against the Capitals despite being unable to finish Saturday night’s game against the Bruins.
“I think the best way to play defense is to play offense, and we’ve proven that time after time,” added Pacioretty, who sits second in scoring for the Canadiens on the year with 30 points in 34 games. “We can’t let a guy like Ovechkin come in here and get us off our game. We’ve got to expose him in the defensive zone and hopefully play down there.”
Cognizant of the fact that this Capitals squad is not the same one they bested 4-1 back on January 24 at the Verizon Center, the Habs – winners of five of their last six games – aren’t reading anything into their perfect 11-0 record against southeast division opponents with another two points on the line and a playoff berth in sight.
“We watched video of our first game against the Capitals. We were in the process of establishing our system of play and they were doing the same thing on their end,” explained head coach Michel Therrien, noting that like the Habs, the Capitals spent much of the first part of the year learning the ins-and-outs of new offensive and defensive schemes under a newly appointed bench boss.
“At this time of year, the situation is very different,” continued Therrien, who will welcome forward Rene Bourque back to the lineup after the 31-year-old winger missed the last 21 games with a concussion. “We managed to win that game. But, it still takes a certain amount of time before you can take a team to where you’d like them to be. We were going in the right direction at the beginning of the season and we improved throughout the year. On their end, it’s the same thing. They’re a team that’s playing an inspired brand of hockey.”
Unlike the Canadiens, however, Tuesday night’s matchup serves as an important measuring stick for the Capitals, who despite winning eight of their last 10 contests, are only going up against a team currently in playoff position for the third time in 11 games. For the occasion, the Habs are expecting nothing short of Washington’s best come puck drop.
“I think they were starting to play well before they even went on this streak and they’re getting production from their top-end guys,” said Jeff Halpern, who spent the 2011-12 season with the Capitals. “The rest of their team is playing solid and contributing, so I think they’re as good as any team in the East right now.”
Needless to say, the Habs won’t be taking Washington’s renewed sense of team spirit and Ovechkin’s offensive prowess lightly with top spot in the northeast division still very much up for grabs.
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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