As one of the elite goal-scorers of this generation, Alex Ovechkin has understandably been the focus of a lot of criticism lately. The Washington Capitals captain has just 19 goals in 49 games this season, on pace for just over 31 on the season. That would be a solid season of production for most players, but it would be a new career low for Ovechkin, blowing away his pervious career low of 46 goals set in his sophomore season.
However, the Russian winger seems to be getting back to his scoring ways. He has four goals in his last three games, including a hat trick Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 4-1 Capitals victory on Hockey Night in Canada.
Between November 17th and January 16th, he scored just five goals in 28 games, including a nine-game scoreless drought and an eight-game scoreless drought. The lack of production was unprecedented coming from Ovechkin, so he decided he needed to changes his style in order to break out of the slump.
It was a novel idea, really: he decided to go to the net. The “Russian machine” has always been a physical force on the ice, but he never translated that physical play into a net presence. That is, until now. His Saturday night hat trick was a perfect display of that change. His first goal deflected off his body from a point shot from defenseman Jeff Schultz. Ovechkin parked himself in front of J.S. Giguere and refused to give up position. On the second goal, he crashed the net and put home a rebound that squeaked through Giguere’s five-hole. On the third, he out-worked and out-skated the Leafs’ defenseman, drew a penalty, and iced the game with an empty netter.
After a recent overtime loss to the rival Philadelphia Flyers, the captain mentioned that the Capitals needed to go to the net more. He stressed that if they want to win games, they have to pay the price to stand in the high-traffic zones. Ovechkin also said that it was important for the whole team to buy into this style, not just a few players. He walked his own talk against the Maple Leafs in every way. Ovechkin even finished with three blocked shots.
Monday morning at practice, Matt Hendricks talked about what its like to see your captain lead with that style of play. “When you see our captain, not known for blocking shots, and [Dion] Phaneuf shoots a heavy puck, and he’s going down right in the middle of the ice, end of the third period to win the game,” Hendricks said, “He’s not doing it to get a point, to get an assist, obviously. He’s doing it to win the game, to show everyone on the bench ‘Hey, this is what I’m here for, and I’m going to help anyway I can,’ and he did it. That’s what captains do, and I’m excited.”
In fact, it was Hendricks that scored the more “Ovechkin-like” goal of the night. He undressed Giguere with a deke after picking off an outlet pass, leading to a breakaway.
Part of leadership is leading by example. While Ovechkin has fulfilled that in the past in terms of production, he is beginning to do it with work ethic as well. He is seeing results with more grit, and seeing those results should only encourage his newfound attitude. While Ovechkin likely won’t finish the season with his normal 50 goals, look for him to make an impact in the second half. Adding another dimension to his game should only improve his numbers, and once Ovechkin catches fire, it can be near impossible to stop him. Opposing teams hope Saturday night wasn’t that trigger, while Caps fans hope it was.