A year ago, there were some serious questions about the Caps’ long-standing offensive core. Two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin was finishing a career-worst season in which he would score just 65 points. Supreme set-up man Nicklas Backstrom had missed the first half of the season with a concussion. Defenseman Mike Green remained injury-plagued and would wind up with just seven points in 32 games. And sniper Alexander Semin would put just 21 pucks past opposing goalies.
Washington’s once prolific young guns seemed to be turning into popguns. The Caps let Semin sign with Carolina as a free agent last summer, but not much else changed for the remaining trio through the first half of this lockout-shortened season.
Playing for a third coach, and thus in a third system in less than 14 months, Ovechkin scored just nine goals and 20 points in the first 25 games as Washington started 10-4-1. The 27-year-old Russian seemed unable to recapture his superstar status under new coach Adam Oates, who moved him from his accustomed left wing spot to right wing.
Green, a 27-year-old Calgary native continued to be betrayed by his body, skating in just two of 13 games from mid-February to late March.
Backstrom, the 25-year-old Swedish center, had just four points as Washington started the season 1-5-1.
But starting on St. Patrick’s Day against Buffalo, the one-time “Young Guns” have been firing on all cylinders again, leading the Caps on a 9-2-1 surge that has rocketed them to the top of the Southeast Division with just nine games remaining.
Ovechkin has nine goals and 15 points in the past 12 games. He’s the reigning First Star of the Week after scoring seven goals and nine points as Washington went 4-0 last week. In the process, he became the only player to score at least 20 goals in each of the last eight seasons.
“I just get used to [playing on the right side],” said Ovechkin, who’s now tied with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos for the league lead with 25 goals. “Right now, I feel pretty good. Of course, I’m happy I score the goals … The beginning of year was pretty hard time for [the] organization. Now we’re back on track and it’s good.”
Green, who returned on March 21 at Winnipeg, has eight points in the last 10 games, more than he produced all last season. His two-goal game against Carolina last Tuesday was his first since Oct. 22, 2011 when the Caps rose to 7-0 under coach Bruce Boudreau, who would be fired a little over a month later.
Backstrom has 13 assists and 16 points in those same last 10 games, including his first four-assist night in the victory over the Hurricanes since Nov. 11, 2010 and the 300th helper of his career on Ovechkin’s first of three goals in this past Sunday’s conquest of the Lightning.
“I feel pretty good out there,” Backstrom said. “[Alex is] scoring on his chances. It makes it easier [for the rest of us]. And when he has confidence, it’s fun to see and helps the team a lot.”
Having Green back in the lineup has also been a boon for the Caps, especially John Carlson, Washington’s next biggest threat from the blue line. The 23-year-old defenseman averaged less than 21 minutes of ice time the past five games – while Green averaged nearly 24 — compared to about 27 minutes per night in the final five contests that Green missed with a groin injury.
“It’s hard to replace a top quality player,” Oates said. “Carly doesn’t have to play as much and it trickles down through the lineup. Mike’s scored some big goals for us. I love the way he’s moving up on the play. He’s not trying to do too much with [the puck], not trying to gamble. Obviously, the poise on the blue line’s huge. The puck possession’s huge, and he’s playing very well.”
Of course, the Caps, wouldn’t be the Caps, unless something was wrong. Brooks Laich, perhaps the ultimate locker room leader and two-play player, missed the first 28 games with a groin injury and is out again with an undisclosed problem after skating in just nine contests. And left wing Martin Erat, acquired at last Wednesday’s trade deadline, lasted just two games before being sidelined after being slammed into the boards by Florida’s Erik Gudbranson last Saturday.
But as long as Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green are going strong, the Caps are on course to win their fifth Southeast title in six years.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin