It’s a question that became a cottage industry: How could the most dominant goal scorer in recent memory and a perennial MVP candidate transform into such an ordinary player? How could the NHL’s most irresistible force of nature – the most electrifying player in the League since Jaromir Jagr and Pavel Bure redefined excitement for a generation – become so passionless?
It was a question that sparked lengthy analysis pieces. Was it opposing defenses figuring him out? Was it Kirk Muller figuring him out? Was he too heavy? Was it, ahem, medicinal? Was he drunk? Was it his mother? Or was it a lost desire to compete because of the Capitals’ failures, Russia’s Olympic flop or because Sidney Crosby far surpassed him?
Maybe it was the lack of scraggily caveman beard. Damn you, Gillette.
"What's wrong with Ovechkin?" is also a question that hasn’t been asked once since St. Patrick’s Day, which was the point of departure for Ovechkin from his middling season. He’s now tied for the NHL lead in goals with 25. He has 21 points in his last 12 games, scoring in all but one of them. The Capitals are now back on top of the Southeast Division, even if it’s (shall we say) a manageable division.
So perhaps it’s time the script was flipped on the years-old question about the Washington captain, even if temporarily.
As he wins NHL player of the week honors again, we ask: What’s right with Alex Ovechkin?
The Power Play
My operative theory on Ovechkin entering the season was that he could attain his previous levels of offensive success if new coach Adam Oates’ power play prowess could make up the gap.
Ovechkin had an astounding 46 power-play points in his 110-point season in 2008-09, or 42 percent of his point total. This season is even better than that: 21 points on the power play out of 43 points overall. He’s scored nearly half his points on the man advantage.
Goals? Ovechkin has 14 power-play goals in 39 games, one more than he had in 78 games last season. That’s 56 percent of his goals coming on the power play. For comparison’s sake, Steven Stamkos only had eight of his 25 goals on the power play.
Shots, Shots, Shot
Shots on goal aren’t always the best indicator of a player’s offensive success, because obviously you’re not judging the quality of the chances. But in Ovechkin’s case, it’s always been a measurement of engagement. As Nicklas Backstrom told the Washington Post:
“He’s scoring on his chances; obviously he’s got a lot of shots during the game,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “It makes it easier. And when he has confidence, it’s fun to see and helps the team a lot.”
Ovechkin is averaging 5.45 shots per game since March 17; in his previous 27 games, Ovechkin averaged 4.11 shots per game and was held without a shot twice. (Against Carolina, prompting some people to say Coach Muller had Ovechkin figured out. What fools!)
Nicklas Backstrom’s Back, Too
For all of Ovechkin’s struggles, Backstrom had an equally bad start to this season. Putrid, in fact: He scored one goal in his first 17 games, and had been surpassed by Mike Ribeiro has the Capitals’ best offensive center.
Oh, hey, would you look at that: Coinciding with Ovechkin’s hot streak was one from Backstrom, as the duo were reunited by Oates. Since March 17, Backstrom has 18 points in 12 games, including four assists against the Hurricanes and three helpers on Ovechkin’s hat-trick goals against the Panthers.
Those two players and Marcus Johansson have combined for one of the hottest lines in the NHL in the last few weeks. So no, Ovechkin isn’t doing it all on his own.
If there’s a theme that runs through this revival, it’s the Capitals head coach.
His move of Ovechkin to the right side was met with derision, but it’s ultimately paid off. His dropping of Ovechkin to a line with Joey Crabb was seen as an insult or misuse of a star player, but maybe it got him working hard again.
Ovechkin used the word “trust” over the weekend is help explain why his game’s turned around. It’s something Oates has worked hard to gain. Via the Post:
“I’m trying to establish that rapport with him so he trusts me in all the little situations in the game,” Oates said. “And all the stuff we’ve talked about, all the touches and every little play and I was making fun of him that he whiffed it.”
Building that relationship with Ovechkin and every player is what Oates previously called the most challenging aspect of his job. He wants to establish a solid foundation from which to offer praise but also constructive criticism.
Ovechkin praised the hiring of Oates as an offensive coach that wasn’t going to shackle him like Dale Hunter had. But Oates is also something that Bruce Boudreau and Hunter were not: an elite level offensive star in the NHL. Perhaps there’s an added understanding between the two because of that.
If Alex Ovechkin hasn’t watched Mike Milbury torch him on national television, he’s at least been asked about it. He knows the glee his critics take in bashing him when he’s unproductive. He’s aware of the whispers about him being washed up or all hype at 27.
Is it possible Ovechkin had just heard enough? That he reached the boiling point as far as criticism, and used that as motivation to kick-start a moribund season? That he wanted to prove he could dominate and elevate his team again like he had a few years ago?
You know, back when he was Alex Ovechkin, the Great 8? The Russian Machine that Never Breaks?
That guy’s been gone for a while. But, even if for a moment, he’s back.