Good thing we didn't flush Ovechkin

Good thing we didn't flush Ovechkin
April 9, 2013, 10:15 am
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Six weeks ago the hockey world was convinced Alex Ovechkin was either washed up or out to sea, waiting for the next wave to wash him ashore.

Turns out he was furiously paddling to stay afloat, desperately trying to resurrect a career many believed had reached its pinnacle three or four years ago.

Today, Ovechkin finds himself in the thick of the NHL goal-scoring race, tied with Tampa’s Steven Stamkos for the league lead with 25.

He ranks first in the NHL in the league in power-play goals [14], power-play points [21] and shots [176]. He’s sixth in the league in points [43] and eighth among right wingers in hits [92]. [By the way, NHL.com still lists him as a left wing, but more on that later].

And there are even those bold enough to mention his name in Hart Trophy discussions.

If today marks the high point of the Ovechkin reclamation project, Feb. 27 in Philadelphia was when the Capitals’ 27-year-old captain reached rock bottom. Or at least that’s when he was left clinging to a buoy.

It was during that 4-1 loss to the Flyers that analyst Mike Milbury hung  Ovechkin out to dry, saying Ovechkin should be embarrassed by his play.

“This is a guy that makes a ton of money,” Milbury said at the time. “He owes it to his owner, he owes it to his coach. That guy ought to be held accountable.”

Since that loss in Philly, arguably their worst of the season, the Capitals have gone 13-6-1 and Ovechkin has been a beast, recording 17 goals and 11 assists for 28 points in those 20 games.

In the midst of his furious comeback, Ovechkin uttered one of his most memorable lines of the season.

“Right now I’m scoring goals and I’m the king of the world,” Ovechkin told reporters on March 25. “A couple weeks ago I was almost on the toilet. You just forgot to flush me.”

How has Ovechkin gone from burnt toast to the toast of the NHL?

Is it simply a burning desire to silence his critics?

Is it his adaptation to right wing?

Is it a new wrinkle on the Caps’ power play?

Is it his new haircut? Sharper Gillette razors? Maria Kirilenko?

We cannot discount the theory that Ovechkin may be motivated by those who beat him up in the media. During Ovechkin’s first Stanley Cup playoff series against the Flyers back in 2008 Milbury referred to Ovechkin as a Chihuahua and the defiant Russian responded by saying, “If I am a dog, I am bulldog.”

Ovechkin is a fiercely proud player and Adam Oates was quick to defend his captain after Milbury’s comments, saying everyone wants to take a big man down. But Oates also made it very clear that he is holding Ovechkin just as accountable for his play than every other member of his team, an issue that seemed to be a bone of contention with previous coaches.

Oates certainly took a huge risk when he asked Ovechkin to move from left wing to right wing and it took eight losses in the first 11 games before the move started paying off.

As a right wing Ovechkin is handling the puck far more this season than he has at any time in his career and is scoring from areas of the ice he never roamed before. Ovechkin’s deflection goal on Jack Hillen’s point shot Sunday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning was a perfect example. He cruised through the slot to get his stick on the shot, something he never did from the left side, where defenseman had grown accustomed to his outside-inside move, deflecting away many of his attempted shots.

On the power play, Oates has moved Ovechkin from the left point, where he had trouble keeping the puck in the offensive zone on his backhand, to the left faceoff circle, where he is teeing up one-timers from Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson and Mike Ribeiro. The addition of Ribeiro to the Caps’ power play also cannot be overstated.

Put it all together and you have a player who, if this was an 82-game season, would be on pace for 53 goals and 90 points. Those are MVP numbers in today’s NHL.

Whether they’ll be enough to turn the Ovi doubters into believers remains to be seen.