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Panthers Pregame: How do you defend Ovechkin and the Capitals?

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Alex Ovechkin scores one of his 39 career goals against the Florida Panthers against Roberto Luongo on November 5, 2016, at the Verizon Center in Washington as Mike Matheson and Aaron Ekblad defend. The Capitals won 4-2. — Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire

There’s been a question around the hockey world for years: How do you stop the Washington Capitals power play and, more specifically, Alex Ovechkin?

Well, good luck.

“He’s an unbelievable player,” said Florida Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette, whose team plays host to Ovi and the Capitals on Thursday night.

“He’s just always great. The great ones, they just find a way to keep going. I watch football every Sunday and you see Tom Brady and Alex is kind of carrying that over.”

Ovechkin has been active in the league since 2005 and he’s been killing teams the same way for all of these years — on the power play.

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“It’s amazing what he’s done on the power play,” Brunette said. “Everybody in the league, everyone on TV, every fan knows what happens when he gets it. He shoots it. Nothing surprises me with him anymore.”

For the past 16 years, Ovechkin has been setting up from his office: the left face-off circle.

From there, he has been burning goaltenders with his blistering shot over the years, benefitting from playing with some of the league’s top playmakers as well.

But don’t get it twisted, Ovechkin has always been the main threat on the power play.

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“It’s unbelievable really. I think if you look at all the different sports, I don’t think you can find a guy who can sit there and do it for so long,” Brunette said. “And you still can’t stop him. He has benefitted from some great passers too, but he is a unique and remarkable talent.”

With Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin’s primary playmaking partner of the past 14 seasons, out with injury, the Capitals’ top power play has a bit of a different look to it.

Starting from the left point off of the face-off with longtime Caps defensive powerplay stalwart John Carlson to his right, Ovechkin has Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Conor Sheary up front.

While it hasn’t been as good as it has been in the past, Washington’s powerplay is scoring at a 20 percent clip which is tied with Florida for 16th in the league.

The Panthers’ eighth-ranked penalty kill of 86.1 percent gets the task of lining up against the Capitals and Ovechkin’s 271 career powerplay goals – which is just three off from passing Dave Andreychuk for the most in NHL history.

With two of them coming this year, one thing has been most apparent when watching this team play on the powerplay: keep an eye on the left side.

When you’re playing Washington, there are two things you simply cannot do on the penalty kill and that is turn your back on Ovechkin and leave any passing lanes going to that left side of the ice open.

With a defensive-minded team like Florida, the task seems pretty easy on paper.

You have your top man guarding that left face-off circle, where Ovechkin usually hangs out up top, you have your left defenseman carefully watching if Ovechkin moves up to the front of the net while also keying in on Wilson taking residence up front, and then your two men on the right locked into their assignments while being aware of the passing lanes.

If just one man loosens up on his assignment and the puck flurries its way over to Ovechkin, that’s where it gets dangerous.

He can shoot from just about anywhere on the ice, so if you give him a fraction of a second and just enough room, he’ll strike.

That’s how he’s gotten 731 goals over the course of his career and is the first player since Wayne Gretzky himself broke the record to even be taken seriously as a candidate to finish his career with the most goals in NHL history.

The object of the Panthers’ game tonight is simple: keep the puck away from that left side of the ice.

Keeping it to the perimeter and blocking shots is always nice, but when a player of Ovechkin’s caliber is on the ice, you have to key in on him to stop him.

If you give him enough room from that perimeter spot to fire off his deadly wrister or for him to catch you sleeping and get in alone in front of the net, he’ll make you pay for it.

In the midst of an NHL record chase, Ovechkin heads to South Florida to face the Panthers, a team which tried multiple times to draft him in 2003 despite him not being draft-eligible, in an attempt to add to it.

It’s up to them to keep the puck out of his hands.

Or at least try to.

Again, good luck.

FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK

WASHINGTON CAPITALS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS

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