Washington Capitals\' Mike Green, left, celebrates his goal with Alex Ovechkin, right, of Russia against the Philadelphia Flyers during the third period of a NHL playoff hockey game, Friday. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Nick Wass
WASHINGTON - Alex Ovechkin was bumped around, boxed in and, well, pretty much Broad Street Bullied for most of his NHL playoff debut.
And then, with the outcome hanging in the balance, Alex the Great emerged.
Held without a single shot until late, the league's leading scorer stole the puck and netted the tiebreaking goal with 4 1/2 minutes remaining, giving the Washington Capitals a 5-4 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series Friday night.
"They held him in check pretty good," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said, "but he's one of the guys that needs one chance."
That's pretty much all Ovechkin got against the Flyers, who led 4-2 heading into the final period, thanks to two goals apiece by Danny Briere and Vaclav Prospal. But Ovechkin got going by helping set up the first of two goals by defenceman Mike Green that lifted Washington into a tie.
And then Ovechkin, the 22-year-old Russian who set a NHL record for goals by a left wing this season with 65, put the finishing touch on the Capitals' first playoff game since 2003. He took the puck away from defenceman Lasse Kukkonen and slid it past goalie Martin Biron, drawing "M-V-P!" chants from the red-clad fans.
"A pretty veteran move," said Sergei Fedorov, a 38-year-old who would know, having earned 1994 league MVP honours and three Stanley Cup championships with Detroit.
Looking at the way his young teammate handled himself all night, Fedorov lavished more praise on Ovechkin.
"It's not easy: so much talk about everything and such a great season," Fedorov said. "Playoffs is a little different. I'm actually surprised - really amazed - that he kept himself so together, so cool in the final moments of the game."
Before the game, Boudreau was asked how his young team would handle the post-season. The answer might have sounded surprising: "I think of anybody, the most nervous guy is probably Alex."
And afterward Ovechkin confirmed that he had the jitters.
"It was different," Ovechkin said between gasps of air.
Perhaps he was winded thanks to his goal celebration. First, he sprinted over and slammed his body into the glass. Then, he did a high-step along the boards. And finally, he skated all the way down to the other end to exchange high-fives with Washington goalie Cristobal Huet.
Ovechkin also acknowledged being tired after dealing with the Flyers' warm introduction to the playoffs. Kukkonen greeted Ovechkin with an extra tap here, an extra shove there. Mike Knuble said "Hello" with an extra stick to the ribs. And Ovechkin, whose 446 shots were the second-most in a season in NHL history, did not register one on this night until nearly 13 minutes into the third period.
"We did a good job of containing him," Philadelphia's Scottie Upshall said, "for the first 45 minutes."
Not long enough, clearly.
Game 2 is Sunday at Washington, where the hosts have won seven straight games. They've also won eight in a row overall, and 12 of 13, a remarkable turnaround that culminated in a Southeast Division title and No. 3 seeding for the playoffs. When Boudreau took over as coach, replacing the fired Glen Hanlon, Washington was 6-14-1 - worst among the NHL's 30 teams. At the season's midpoint, the Capitals still ranked only 14th of the East's 15 teams.
So what was a little thing like a two-goal deficit heading into the third period? Even if the Capitals never had overcome that sort of hole to win a playoff game?
Which is why Boudreau instructed his players at the second intermission: "Don't give up. Don't give up. Just keep pushing."
They heeded his words. Green, who led NHL defencemen in goals with 18 this season, pulled Washington to 4-3 only 1:50 into the third period, putting in a pretty backhanded feed from Fedorov.
Green then tied it at 4 with about 13 1/2 minutes to go on what essentially was a 5-on-3, because Briere was serving a penalty for high-sticking, and Philadelphia's Patrick Thoresen was down on the ice, writhing in pain, after being hit in the groin while blocking a shot.
When Green's slap shot from near the blue line went in, he was tackled by Ovechkin and other teammates at centre ice. Thoresen, meanwhile, was helped off toward the locker room and later was taken to the hospital, possibly facing surgery.
That gave the Flyers pause, another thing to worry about on a night they played well enough to take the lead, then poorly enough to allow it to slip away.
"We've been successful tonight," Prospal said. "Too bad we didn't win the game."
Notes: Donald Brashear, who scored Washington's first goal, played for the Flyers from 2001-06 and entered the night with two goals in 49 career playoff games. ... Dave Steckel returned to action after missing Washington's last 14 regular-season games because of a broken finger and scored in the seconds period. ... D Jason Smith, Philadelphia's captain, played after missing the last game of the regular season and a pair of practices this week with an upper body injury. ... Capitals D Shaone Morrisonn (upper body injury) returned to the lineup.