After serving the last of his three-game suspension last night at Florida for his hit on Pittsburgh’s Zybnek Michalek, Alex Ovechkin will be back in the lineup when the Caps return to action Saturday night in Montreal.
But will the real Ovechkin or just a watered-down version return to the ice as Washington, which fell out of the Southeast Division lead and a playoff spot with the 4-2 loss to the Panthers, pushes to reach postseason for a fifth straight spring for the first time since 1996?
The flamboyant, hard-shooting, hard-hitting winger just hasn’t been himself since he and Russia didn’t even qualify for the medal round in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver as Sidney Crosby, then his biggest rival as hockey’s best player, led Canada to the gold medal.
Ovechkin, the 2008 and 2009 winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP, was having his usual monster season before those Olympics with 42 goals and 47 assists in 54 games. But in the 18 games after Vancouver, he managed eight goals and 12 assists before he and the top-seeded Caps were stunned in the first round of the playoffs by eighth-seeded Montreal.
The Great Eight’s slump continued last season as he set career-lows with 32 goals and 85 points. He added just 10 points in nine playoffs games as Washington was swept out of the second round by underdog Tampa Bay.
This year has been even worse for the 26-year-old Ovechkin, who has just 20 goals and 19 assists with only 32 games remaining. He’s tied for 15th in goals and for 42nd in points and didn’t deserve the All-Star selection he declined after his suspension. Although center Nicklas Backstrom has been out nearly a month with a concussion, he still ranks ahead of Ovechkin as Washington’s top scorer.
Hours before he was suspended, Ovechkin was asked if he plays better when he plays physically.
“Of course,” he said. “You in the game. When you’re just skating around without the hits, you’re not in the game.”
The followup question was whether the suspension – his third during the last three seasons – would cause Ovechkin to change his physical style.
“I’m physical?” he replied with a smile. “We’ll see.”
It will be interesting to see if Ovechkin responds with a vengeance beginning Saturday against the Canadiens or if his 23-month-long slide towards mere mortal status continues. That wouldn’t bode well for Washington’s chances of winning a fifth straight Southeast crown let alone its first Stanley Cup.
Ovechkin’s teammates, while acknowledging that the crackdown by new NHL enforcement boss Brendan Shanahan has caused them to be more careful, hope that the stricter rules don’t affect their superstar too much.
“We need that physical play,” said winger Troy Brouwer, whom Washington acquired from Chicago in June. “(Ovi) brings a lot of dynamics to a team with speed, skill and that physical play.”
But Brouwer said that his game is different these days.
“It does change your game,” he admitted. “It makes you a little bit more tentative. There’s a lot of (potential) hits that you pull a little bit (to avoid) because you’re not sure if the guy’s gonna try to change angles on ya.”
Matt Hendricks is Washington’s main enforcer, but he’s not the same player anymore either.
“If this game isn’t played physically, it’s not a very good hockey game,” said Hendricks, who praised Shanahan’s decisions and explanations. “(But) it needs to be a physical game without those elbow (and) head shots. It’s good for the game, good for us. I’ve slowed down a lot. In the past, I felt ‘He’s close enough to the boards, he’s not gonna go headfirst into (them), he’s not gonna get hurt’ and I would make contact with him. Now we’re holding each other up a little bit more, trying to keep from getting suspended.”
Caps coach Dale Hunter, infamous for a hit from behind on the Islanders’ Pierre Turgeon in the 1993 playoffs that earned him a 21-game suspension, managed a wry smile when asked how he would fare in today’s NHL.
“You have to adapt,” said Hunter, the only player ever with 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes.
The questions for Ovechkin and the Caps are whether he can adapt and whether he can ever get his mojo back.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.