In retrospect we couldn’t have asked for a better first-round matchup. The Capitals are the more talented team, but they’re also more banged-up and tired. The Hurricanes are younger and hungrier (whatever that means), but also less experienced—which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how they channel that nervous energy. The Caps, on the other hand, have been here, many times, and again, there are pros and cons: There’s the pride of wanting to defend their title, but there are also the miles on those legs from playing into at least May every year, and the potential for a Cup hangover—for them, perhaps even a literal one.
It’s been a wildly entertaining, wildly even series, now heading to a Game 7 after Carolina’s 5-2 win Monday night. But with all the factors on either side, the Capitals hold the Trump card: the best player on the ice, one Alexander Ovechkin. It’d be reductive to say that as goes Ovie, so go the Capitals, but he is their heart and soul and their id. And Ovechkin’s fingerprints were all over Game 6, for better or for worse—it was a night to remember and one he’d very much like to forget.
It’s been a chippy series, but on this night Ovechkin clearly came out looking for a fight. In the first, he tracked down and tried to lay a big, unnecessary hit on Dougie Hamilton. In Game 5, Hamilton had shied away from an Ovechkin check, so Ovie wasn’t going to let this one pass uncommented-upon: As he skated back to the bench, Ovechkin showed Hamilton exactly what he thought of that, flapping his arms like a chicken.
That was bad Ovie. A few minutes later came good Ovie, as he scored a go-ahead goal from his usual office in the left circle, but not before a little hesitation to let a sliding defenseman take himself out of the play.
But the Canes reclaimed the lead in the third and were clinging to an unsafe-feeling one-goal lead when the shit really hit the fan. And of course Ovechkin was at the center of the controversy. With 9:26 remaining, after Evgeny Kuznetsov tried to tuck the puck under Petr Mrazek’s pads, Ovechkin came charging in for the stuff attempt. The puck drifted across the goal line, but Oveckin also made contact with Mrazek. As the Caps celebrated what they thought was the tying goal, officials waved the goal off, and after Todd Reirden challenged, the NHL’s central replay facility confirmed: no goal.
A furious Ovechkin hollered “fucking bullshit” at the officials, in English, in order to make sure they understood him. After the game, he had slightly less to say about it. “What I can say?” he asked. “They make a call. It’s on them, so it’s over.”
The debate is absolutely not over. The puck was still loose under Mrazek, and it looked like Ovechkin got it relatively cleanly with his stick before he contacted the goalie. Did the contact occur after the puck was already inevitably going in? I think: probably yes. Or, put another way, the contact didn’t cause the goal.
But while Ovechkin may not have violated the spirit of the law, he absolutely violated the letter. There’s no provision in the rulebook for hypotheticals, or taking into account cause-and-effect. The league put out a statement explaining the ruling:
After reviewing all available replays and consulting with the Referee, the Situation Room confirmed that Alex Ovechkin interfered with Petr Mrazek by pushing his pad, which caused the puck to enter the net. According to Rule 69.3, “If an attacking player initiates contact with a goalkeeper, incidental or otherwise, while the goalkeeper is in his goal crease, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.”
If the Capitals have a legitimate qualm, it’s with the wording of the rule and not its enforcement here.
Ovechkin, again, wanted to move on—but not before noting what it looked like from his perspective.
“Yeah, I saw the puck. He didn’t get it in control. He didn’t see that, so I don’t know what the referee saw or what the explanation was. It was kind of weird, but it’s okay. It’s over; move forward. Nothing we can do right now.”
Carolina would score again and add an empty-netter to seal this one, but Ovechkin’s night was not done. As the clock ticked out on Game 6, he took an unnecessary slashing penalty, and then showed the officials exactly what he thought of how they had called the game. He earned a game misconduct for this one.
“They make weird calls all game,” Ovie said afterward, “but I was not surprised. I don’t want to be a bad guy or something, but it was not fun.”
What is fun is that we’ll get a Game 7 in this budding Mid-Atlantic rivalry. The home team has won every game this series, but the Caps also have a nightmarish history of Game 7s in D.C., with brutal losses over the last decade to the likes of Pittsburgh, New York, and Montreal. (Not even last year’s Cup has erased the memories of those games; Caps fans probably had atavistic reactions to mentions of those opponents, and don’t need me to remind them of the details.) If the Capitals are to avoid a return to the bad old days, they’ll need more from a few different players, most notably Kuznetsov, who has been especially invisible in the absence of T.J. Oshie. It’s not all on Ovechkin. But all eyes will be on him anyway; he always seems to make sure of that.