Dear Alex (дорогой Алекс),
I’m writing to say I was wrong about you. Very wrong. Not quite two years ago, I wrote a column for another Washington area outlet which I titled “Alex Ovechkin: Former Superstar.”
I wrote then that hockey’s formerly most feared combination of offensive weapon and physical force just hadn’t been the same since failing to lead Russia into the medal round of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. I noted that you had 42 goals and 47 assists in 54 games before the Olympics but managed just eight goals and 12 assists in the remaining 18 games before you and top-seeded Washington were shocked in the first round of the playoffs by eighth-seeded Montreal.
Your slump continued in 2010-11 with career-lows of 32 goals and 85 points and you scored just 10 points in nine playoff games as the Capitals were swept out of the second round by underdog Tampa Bay.
Up to the day that I wrote the column, 2011-12 had been even worse for you with just 20 goals (tied for 15th ) and 39 points (tied for 20th) with only 32 games left. So I wrote that not only didn’t you deserve the All-Star selection you had declined but argued that Nicklas Backstrom had surpassed you as Washington’s top player.
I ended the column by asking if the lesser you was the new normal? Boy was I wrong. Mea culpa, Alex.
Ovechkin’s renaissance began when Adam Oates replaced Dale Hunter as the Caps’ coach before last season. Oates asked Ovechkin, a career left wing, to move to the right side to take better advantage of his fearsome shot and because his play had become too predictable.
After an extended adjustment period, Ovi’s offense returned to the level that had won him the Hart Trophy (MVP) in 2008 and 2009. Over the final 21 games, Ovechkin scored 22 goals, leading Washington to its fifth Southeast Division title in six years and becoming just the seventh three-time Hart winner. Only immortals Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Eddie Shore have been so honored more often.
Ovechkin has kept it going this season.
Last Tuesday, he fired home four goals for the first time in nearly six years, passing Peter Bondra as Washington’s career leader in power-play tallies and pushing the Caps to a come-from-behind 6-5 overtime victory over the Lightning. The final goal of the four came on a one-timer from the top of the left circle with 32.4 seconds left in regulation.
“He’s a pure sniper,” Oates said. “The fourth goal, with the ice conditions at that time, the length of the pass … that’s an incredible shot. That’s why he’s a superstar.”
Oates, a Hall of Fame set-up man who would’ve loved to have skated with Ovechkin, has been around him for less than a full season. Those who’ve spent more time with the Great Eight weren’t surprised.
“You just put the puck on a tee for him and he knows what to do with it,” said Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “It’s pretty amazing, the shot that he has and [how he’s always] finding those [open] spots.”
Ovechkin’s game-tying goal with 48 seconds left in Sunday’s 5-4 shootout victory over visiting Philadelphia was his league-best 27th. He also leads the NHL in shots, power-play goals and power-play points.
Add his torrid stretch run last spring and Ovechkin has 49 goals in his last 52 games, not far off an incredible goal-per-game pace that no one has maintained since superstar Mario Lemieux scored 50 in 50 in 1995-96 when then-defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey’s left wing lock defensive system was just starting to spread throughout the NHL.
During the nearly two decades since, scoring has been at its lowest level since the 1950s. The NHL’s leading scorer averaged 74 goals during the 14 full seasons from 1982-96, including Gretzky’s record 92 in 1982. The top sniper has averaged just 53 goals during the 15 full seasons since with Ovechkin’s 65 in 2008 the high water mark.
Tonight in Philadelphia, Ovechkin could score the two goals he needs to become the seventh active player with 400. The six men with more have played an average of nine more seasons. At his current pace, Ovechkin would blast 43 goals into enemy nets in Washington’s remaining 49 games for a total of 70 which would be the NHL’s most since 1993.
Give Ovi those 43 goals and he’ll have 441 during his nine seasons. If he would repeat that performance during the next nine seasons, he would have 882, leaving him just 12 shy of Gretzky’s all-time record.
Of course, Gretzky is also a legend because he captained Edmonton to four Stanley Cups before he turned 28. He never won another title.
At 28, Ovechkin has yet to captain Washington to the Eastern Conference finals, let alone hoisted the Cup. Maybe he never will, but would anyone deny the greatness of Ted Williams or Dan Marino because they never led their teams to championships?
So in conclusion, let me say: Alex, I was the first American writer to interview you here when you were the 18-year-old top prospect in the 2004 draft. You deserve this town’s enduring gratitude for making hockey fun again in Washington. I never should have doubted you.
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.
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