Islanders face massive challenge in stopping Alex Ovechkin

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Last year, the Islanders handled a first-round playoff matchup with Sidney Crosby by keeping one of the best in the game without a single goal.

Now, an even bigger threat awaits: Alex Ovechkin.

The Islanders’ top defensive pair of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock will once again be tasked with slowing down an elite talent when their first-round series against Ovechkin and the Capitals begins Wednesday in Toronto.

“That was my first playoff experience and we spent a lot of time up there against Sid,” Pelech said Tuesday via Zoom. “Luckily we did well, and I think that gave us a bit of confidence and momentum going forward. Similar situation with some of the talented players Washington has up front. We’re gonna do our best and hopefully we can do well to shut them down.”

Ovechkin is coming off a regular season in which he tied for the league-lead in goals with 48 to go with 19 assists for 67 points in 68 games. The 34-year-old was well on his way to another 50-goal season — he has eight of them in his 15-year career, leading the league in goals nine times in the process — before the season was suspended by the pandemic.

It was just two years ago that Ovechkin lit up the postseason during the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup, as dominant as ever while recording 15 goals and 12 assists in 24 games.

Not that Barry Trotz, the Capitals coach for that title run, needs any reminders.

“Ovi’s special. He’s going to go down as maybe the purest goal scorer of all time maybe,” Trotz said. “He’s big, he’s physical, he’s as strong as an ox. He brings a lot of elements that you’ve got to try to contain.”

But Trotz has Pelech and Pulock at his disposal, confident that the 25-year-olds can rise to the occasion as they did last postseason against Crosby in a sweep of the Penguins.

“That’s what makes the growth of young defensemen, being able to play against a guy like Ovi and the Sids of the world,” Trotz said. “They feel pretty relaxed against those guys, confident in their own abilities. It’s a great test. Going against the best players in the world, that says a lot about you as a player and it says a lot about the competition that you’re getting yourself to the next level.”

The Islanders’ 3-1 series win over the Panthers in the Stanley Cup qualifiers allowed Pelech to prove he is back to full health after tearing his Achilles in January. He hardly skipped a beat while playing for the first time in nearly seven months and said Tuesday he felt “great.”

But the competition will only get more challenging from here.

“Ovechkin, when he started his career scoring a lot of goals, you just felt like he was scoring 50 goals a year, which is incredible. Nobody can do that these days,” said goalie Semyon Varlamov, who was Ovechkin’s teammate in Washington from 2008-2011. “Obviously, he’s a very dangerous offensive player. He can score a lot of goals. Gonna have to play very smart against him.”

That will especially be the case on the power play, where Ovechkin can do plenty of damage in his favorite spot, firing off one-timers from the left circle.

“Obviously, Ovechkin over there is a huge deal for them,” Pelech said. “He scores a lot of power-play goals and special teams are huge in the playoffs. So that’s going to be a big job for us is not letting him get that shot off or taking away whatever their most dangerous options are out there.”

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