Alex Ovechkin was right there, in his lifelong NHL house, yet still no result. His wrist shot early in the second period Tuesday night was saved and Ovechkin looked up. Maybe the answers for his goal-scoring drought or the Capitals’ recent slide were in the rafters — or beyond.
Relief came 15 minutes later. Ovechkin was stationed in the left circle, where he has been a wrecking ball since entering the league in 2005. His 28th goal of the season won’t be on his career highlights compilation. But, it went in, helping to snap the Capitals’ four-game losing streak and Ovechkin’s longest personal goal-scoring dry spell.
“It’s a goal,” Ovechkin said.
It was an Ovechkin goal in a Capitals win, two beams of Washington’s standard operation that had gone missing. If anything, the last week has shown battles against human nature and Father Time are continually problematic. The Capitals had roared past their competition before the bye week, only to come back without the proper effort during a trip west. In Ovechkin’s case, his inability to score was progressively becoming more of a topic. The 31-year-old could finish with the fewest goals of his career in an 82-game season.
“Obviously right now we’re in position where we was losing four in a row and I kind of don’t feel like you have worry about your personal stats,” Ovechkin said Tuesday. “It’s just situation when we lost to three pretty solid teams — San Jose, Anaheim and L.A. — and now we play the top team from the West. It’s a pretty big challenge, and we do the right things and we win the game.”
Ovechkin had not scored in 10 games. He had not scored an even-strength goal in 18 games before Tuesday night’s shot slid in on the short side just after a power play ended. His 28 goals are four short of the lowest goal-scoring 82-game season of his career, which came in 2011.
The reduction further shows how uncommon Ovechkin’s ability to score 50 goals in a season is. Seven times in the last 11 seasons, he had made it to the 50-goal mark. He’s just one of three people to score that much that often. Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy each had nine 50-goal seasons. Only 10 times in the last eight seasons has an NHL player reached the 50-goal total. Ovechkin did it five times. Only Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos has done it more than once in that period.
Ovechkin’s scoring reduction has natural influences. His average time on ice has dropped to a career-low, backing the Capitals’ assertion that they need to be more balanced in order to win in the playoffs. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ depth made Washington take notice during the postseason last year. Ovechkin’s reduced playing time has become part of the spread out pursuit.
Less time on the ice means less shots in total and frequency. Subsequently, fewer goals have followed and any chance at a seventh Maurice Richard Trophy has evaporated.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been pleased with Ovechkin’s work despite the lack of scoring, saying the his captain has avoided the pitfalls that can come when goals dry up.
“I think a lot is made of him not scoring the last little while, but I’ll tell you what, he’s playing pretty good hockey,” Trotz said. “He’s skating really well. He’s becoming a force again and when he’s becoming a force, then you know those goals are going to come. He’s doing a lot of good things right now. I don’t think he needs to change anything.
“A lot of times when you’re not scoring, especially a goal-scorer, you start to cheat, and he’s not. He’s just maintaining a real even keel and working his butt off.”
Still, Ovechkin’s scoring swoon coincided with the team’s step back. After Tuesday’s win against the Western Conference-leading Minnesota Wild — when the puck was dropped, at least — Washington moved a mere two points in front of the Penguins at the start of play Wednesday. Columbus is just three points back. Out West, the Chicago Blackhawks and Wild are just four and five points, respectively, behind Washington for the Presidents’ Trophy.
Stumbling through a four-game losing streak on the road put the Capitals in this position. It may also serve as a stretch to reignite a team that steamrolled the opposition, seemingly scoring five goals at will night after night before the dip on the road.
“You’re running into teams that are more committed because they’re desperate, they’re urgent and now we’re in that position,” Trotz said. “You saw our mental psyche changes a little bit, too. Now, we’re in a battle. I think that’s going to be great for us.”
With a mere 13 games remaining — six on the road and seven at home — this would be the time for Washington to regroup. They laughed off suggestions earlier in the season that their peak had come at the wrong time. They now think the season’s largest rut came at the right time. They’ll find out in April.
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