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The struggles of Alex Ovechkin

With 14 points in 17 games, Alex Ovechkin is second in team scoring, six points behind Nicklas Backstrom. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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With 14 points in 17 games, Alex Ovechkin is second in team scoring, six points behind Nicklas Backstrom. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Washington Capitals touched down at about 3 a.m. Friday morning for their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, only to discover there was a new national sport in Canada. Hockey and lacrosse have unofficially been replaced by musing what is wrong with Alex Ovechkin.

Depending upon whom you talk to, everything is wrong with Ovechkin, or nothing is wrong with Ovechkin.

This much we know. Ovechkin has gone three straight games without a point and has just seven goals and 14 points in 17 games, which puts him on pace for just 34 goals and 68 points this season, to go along with a minus-15 rating. Those would mark career lows in all but goals and while his 18:43 still leads all Capitals forwards, he’s down almost four minutes from his career average.

In a candid interview Friday, Ovechkin acknowledged he’s struggling, but was not about to flail himself endlessly over it.

“Everything is OK with Alex Ovechkin,” he said. “Everybody always thinks I have to score 60 goals and have a ton of points. But if I’m playing well and the team is losing everybody says, ‘He’s playing well and nobody says anything about the team.’ We’re not here to win the Art Ross, we’re here to win the big thing. I do my best and I try to do what I have to do. I try to score goals…and sometimes I just can’t score.”

The only problem with that theory is even though the Capitals are still leading the Southeast Division on the strength of a 7-0-0 start, the team hasn’t exactly been a triumph of the collective over the individual of late. The power play has been impotent without the injured Mike Green and defensive lapses and short stretches of poor play have haunted them in recent losses. In short, it’s not as though Ovechkin is sacrificing personal stats for the greater good at the moment.

Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau is growing very weary of talking about his superstar’s slump everywhere he goes, realizing there is very little good that can come from calling out Ovechkin. He obviously still believes in his superstar and he should. There’s a sizeable segment that believes Ovechkin has not evolved as a player since he first broke into the league, but Boudreau believes Ovechkin is suffering from the same drop in goal production that has affected others such as Steven Stamkos.

Let’s hope Boudreau is off the mark when he suggests the NHL is slowly evolving back into the bad old days of the dead-puck era. Scoring is down and has gone down every season since the lockout, so there might be something to that. But it’s much easier to simply pick Ovechkin’s game apart.

“Ask Ovie if there’s anything wrong – I don’t think there is,” Boudreau said. “When you look at a game like Winnipeg (a 4-1 loss Thursday night) when he touches the puck, there’s five guys on him. They’re not giving him a lot of room to breathe and when that happens, his linemates have got to come through and help him out a little bit.”

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The question now is, can Ovechkin return to being the 50-to-60-goal scorer he was early in his career? Has the league adapted to his speed and must he reinvent himself? That could be the case. Sidney Crosby came into the league as a pass-first guy who seemingly had trouble putting the puck through a piece of construction paper, but then got a little more selfish (in a good way), began shooting the puck more frequently and with greater authority and transformed himself into a 50-goal man and a contender for the Rocket Richard Trophy.

The interesting thing about Ovechkin is that for all the exuberance and outward emotion he shows on the ice when he scores a goal, he can become just as introspective and inward when things aren’t going well. He’s still going to be playful and happy around teammates and for public consumption, but somewhere in there is a man who is cognizant that he’s carrying the weight of the world and the expectations of a franchise around with him.

“He has always cared and he cares so much,” Boudreau said. “The problem is he doesn’t outwardly show his inner emotions to a lot of people. When he’s upset, he keeps that to himself and it’s tough. When things are bothering him he wants to have his private, ‘I want to feel bad time,’ because he’s such a public figure.”

The feeling from this corner is things will get better for both the Capitals and Ovechkin because they’re both too good to struggle this mightily for an extended period of time. People will continue to question Ovechkin and will have their theories on what is wrong with him for as long as he plays this game. He could certainly silence the detractors by returning to form circa 2007-08, but that may be asking too much.

“Of course it’s hard to be happy when you think about the game because we’re losing,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world. (Saturday) we have a game and we’re going to win the game and we’re going to be happy again.”

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column

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