After a slow start Alex Ovechkin is tied for sixth in NHL scoring. (Getty Images)
Full disclosure: I was one of the many people in the hockey world who thought Alex Ovechkin was done. Not just for this season, but done for good. As in, never to be an impact player ever again. His numbers, his body language and his apparent loss of enthusiasm carried all the markings of a player who had been permanently beaten down.
So it may seem ingenuous that your trusty correspondent is now touting Ovechkin for the Hart Trophy this season. It turns out I was wrong about Ovechkin. So were a lot of other people. And it’s a testament to Ovechkin that he was able to pull himself out of a two-year malaise and inject himself back into the group of the world’s best players again.
If you need any more proof of Ovechkin’s Hart Trophy credentials, consider this: After a 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils Feb. 21, the Capitals sat dead last in the NHL with 11 points in their first 16 games and Ovechkin had just five goals and 10 points. In the 23 games since then, the Capitals have gone 15-7-1 to lead the Southeast Division and Ovechkin has 20-13-33 totals. His empty net goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning Sunday night, his second goal of the game, put him in a tie with Steven Stamkos in the Rocket Richard Trophy race.
Whether you measure a Hart Trophy candidate by the benchmark of being the best player in the league or most valuable to his team, Ovechkin hits the standard on both. No player in the league has been as offensively dangerous over the past six weeks as Ovechkin. And as far as the worth to his team, consider that since the Capitals found themselves, Ovechkin has been held scoreless six times. Washington lost five of those games and won the sixth only because Ovechkin scored the decider in a shootout.
But what makes the Ovechkin phenomenon all the more impressive is, at the age of 27, he has finally done something to change his approach and has become far less predictable. Whenever breaking down the flaws in his game, it would invariably go back to the fact Ovechkin had the one outside-inside move that had worked so well for five years, but most defensemen in the league could defend by watching the nightly hockey highlights.
Well, in case you haven’t noticed, Ovechkin is almost never using that move anymore. His wrist shot is as lethal as ever, but what Ovechkin appears to have finally grasped is that he has to go to the dirty areas of the ice to score goals. Go over his goals this season and you’ll be amazed at how many of them are tips in front of the net or backdoor plays where he’s not more than 10 feet from the net.
It helps, of course, that Nicklas Backstrom has rebounded to form and Mike Ribeiro is on the giving end of so many passes. With playmakers like that in the lineup and playing to the best of their abilities, Ovechkin rarely has to carry the puck anymore. And with all due respect to Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb, how many goals was Ovechkin going to score with those guys? When Backstrom was hurt, it seemed Ovechkin felt he had to carry the puck in and gain the zone every time he was on the ice. And the result was either an attempt thwarted by defensemen who seemed to have the book on Ovechkin or a turnover at the blueline that created an odd-man rush against the Capitals.
(Have you noticed Ovechkin doesn’t celebrate goals anymore as though all of them are overtime goals in Game 7? Perhaps his ability to remain on a level plane mentally has something to do with this as well.)
Now Ovechkin can allow Backstrom to carry the puck, gain the zone and do what he does best – which is to find Ovechkin in open ice with his stick cocked. But give Ovechkin credit where it is due here. Nobody was going to be able to help him until he adapted his game.
Early in Sidney Crosby’s career, the two biggest criticisms of his game were his weak shot and his inability to win faceoffs. Crosby made it his personal admission to improve on both and, as a result, became a 50-goal scorer and one of the top faceoff men in the league. By doing much of the same thing, Ovechkin has once again put himself into the Sid vs. Ovie conversation that had been in danger of fading into memory.
So now with Crosby hurt, it’s up to Ovechkin to continue his offensive tear and get the Capitals into the playoffs. And then who knows? Perhaps the Penguins might meet the Capitals somewhere along the way and a new chapter in the rivalry can be written. If it does happen, you can expect the people in the league’s marketing department will have beet-red hands from constantly high-fiving one another.
But assuming Crosby comes back to form after recovering from his broken jaw, won’t it be great just to have the two players performing at the height of their powers again? Perhaps this time we’ll all learn just to appreciate them for the great players they both are and stop trying to figure out which one is better.
In the end, Crosby will always be the better playmaker and the more responsible all-round player and Ovechkin will be the more dynamic goal scorer. And with the re-emergence of Ovechkin, perhaps we can look forward to the two battling for the Hart Trophy this season and beyond.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.