IF ALEX OVECHKIN is going to show up in time for it to mean something in this Flyers-Capitals playoff series, he has to show up tonight - which is why I think he will.

If 65 goals in the regular season were not a mirage, if all of the attention and all of the hype were not without reason, then this is it - this, tonight, Game 4 of a seven-game series in which his team trails two games to one. It is pressure of the best, most honest kind. Ovechkin needs to be Ovechkin or the Caps need to begin planning the services.

Caps coach Bruce Boudreau might not agree with all of that, but he did say this:

"He's got to do better," Boudreau said. "My history with him is, you can't keep a good man down. They're doing a good job on him. Every time he touches the puck, they're hitting him. He's got to find a way."

Ovechkin has one goal and two assists in the first three games of the series. It is not enough. The Flyers have a coaching staff with a clue and a roster of guys willing to be persistent. They are not so much crashing Ovechkin as they are crowding him.

And it is a "they," not a "him." It is not just defenseman Kimmo Timonen, although you can fairly argue he has been the most important piece. If you look at Game 3, and you look at the lines that Flyers coach John Stevens ran out against Ovechkin, there was almost an equal sharing of duty when the teams were at even strength between the line centered by Mike Richards and the line centered by Jeff Carter.

The Flyers have grown through this series, with more players taking more of the responsibility against Ovechkin. It hasn't been dirty, or antagonistic, or against the rules, or anything like that. It has just been hockey, solid, defensive hockey.

Ovechkin acknowledged as much yesterday after practice when he said, "[They] play well on D. [Flyers goaltender Martin] Biron has played well and they don't give me space to shoot the puck."

Have the Flyers been physical?

"No, not physical," Ovechkin said. "They just skate with me."

The next obvious question was if Ovechkin is frustrated. He answered quickly.

"Me? No," he said. "I'm frustrated we are losing. It's playoffs. It's not about scoring, it's about winning."

Trolling around the Caps' locker room yesterday, there really weren't any answers. There is no great mystery being written here. It is about ability, yes, but in the NHL in the springtime it is about ambition most of all.

As defenseman Steve Eminger said: "[The Flyers] are outworking and outhitting us. That's it. There's no secret to their game. There's no secret attack."

There is no secret, either, to what the Caps might try. You lose, you shake up the lines - they've been doing it since Lester Patrick, and Boudreau did it yesterday in practice, moving the venerable Sergei Fedorov up to the first line to center for Ovechkin.

"Screwing around," is what Boudreau called it, just trying to see if he can find something that might work. He cautioned that he might go back to the original plan by game time tonight, with rookie Nicklas Backstrom centering the first group. (P.S.: Don't count on it.)

As Ovechkin himself said: "We lose two games in a row and we have to change something. We'll see."

The Caps are not dead, not yet, but there seems little hope if Ovechkin cannot be Ovechkin. They are built to rely upon him, to lean on him. When you are a star of his caliber, it is the natural order of things that your position and your responsibilities are above the rest. And the only way you get to stay a star of his caliber is to perform.

So, here we are. Nobody's career is defined by a single playoff game or a single playoff series, and that isn't what anybody is saying. There are years and decades to go before the final tallying takes place on Ovechkin's career.

But this is a big spot for a great young player. This is his first Stanley Cup experience, but it is more than that. It is the first big-stage moment for him where, more than anything, his will is being tested as much as his ability. It is the essence of playoff hockey. He stole Game 1 of the series for his team, stole it at the very end, but he has been stymied by the Flyers' persistence for most of the time. It must be wearing on him.

This is it, though. There is little time left for conversation or theorizing. Alex Ovechkin either figures this out for himself or the Caps are done. Here, now, that is it.

Me? I think he's a really good player. I think he's showing up. *

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