As you may recall, NBC analyst Mike Milbury was scathingly critical of Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin during a 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers back on Feb. 27. Since then Ovechkin has 18 goals, 11 assists and is a plus-9 in 21 games. The Caps have ridden their captain to a 14-6-1 record during that stretch and sit atop the Southeast Division with a 21-17-2 record.
With that in mind, CSNWashington.com caught up with Milbury to discuss his thoughts on the Capitals’ 27-year-old Russian.
CSN: You were pretty rough on Alex during that game in Philly and he’s really turned things around since then. I’m wondering how you’re feeling about the way he’s playing.
Milbury: It’s funny, that day [NBC studio host] Liam McHugh asked me if I thought he could turn it around and I said, “Yeah, he’s got the physical attributes to be a superstar again.” The game in Philly was alarming for the reasons that I illustrated. He seemed lost and who knows why. The lockout; time off; new coach; [Nicklas] Backstrom not playing very well; he’s not playing with Backstrom; they got him playing in a different position. But the fact of the matter was that he was nowhere near what he was capable of being. There’s nothing more frustrating for me as a former coach and manager watching a guy with abilities like that to fall short, particularly when it comes to paying attention to detail or mental or physical effort. He was falling short there. I have no idea what happened in the interim but I’m glad for him and for the Capitals that it has. They’re in a much better place with this Alex than the other one. It’s a tribute to him. So many people attribute the coaches with the credit, but it’s always the player that has to bear the brunt of the criticism and reap the rewards of success, and whatever he’s doing I applaud him for it. I think it’s great because he was in a dark place a couple months ago.
CSN: As few weeks ago Ovechkin told reporters, “You guys forgot to flush me.” Some people think he might have been spurred by your comments and that’s one reason he’s playing better. What’s your take on that?
Milbury: This is how I make my living and my job as an analyst is to be honest in describing what I see and adding whatever experiences I have to the mix. The player deserves the credit and he deserves the blame when it’s there. I give him full marks for recognizing that things weren’t going right and changing his game. I mean, he looks thinner to me. I don’t know if he lost any weight but when you look at his face he looks like he lost a pound or two. He’s going to the front of the net more often. He’s never been shy about shooting the puck, so that’s no surprise he’s still shooting a lot, but he’s playing with Backstrom now, which I think is a big plus for him. If you combine those things I can’t say enough about that kind of turnaround. When you’re in the dumps like that it’s easy to pack it in. To get out of it you’re going to have to man up and address your problems. I understand he and [Adam] Oates spend a lot of time together, at least that’s what I’ve read, and that’s great that they have a relationship and I’m sure that’s one factor in his turnaround. But I’ve never been against Ovechkin. I marvel at his speed and size and his competitiveness. He’s never been anything but competitive until recently and that’s why I get animated, because it seemed like there was less care than there should have been, whether it was physically or mentally, it looked to me to be both. But God bless him, he’s turned it around and so have the Capitals.
CSN: Do you think Ovechkin had become too predictable and that moving him to right wing was a good move by Adam Oates?
Milbury: Whether he switched or not didn’t matter to me. His predictability was there. There was a quote by one coach when we asked if there was something to worry about when facing Alex -- was he still a superstar? -- and he said, “We worry about him on the power play.” That was an indictment of his predictability, I guess. But as I mentioned, I see him going towards the front of the net. That goal he scored the other night [against Tampa] was one of those indicators. Yeah, I think players that are predictable have to adjust. There may be no player around the league who has adjusted more than [Sidney] Crosby. When he finds out he can’t take draws as well as he’d like he works on it until the cows come home. And when he finds he’s not scoring enough he shoots and shoots and shoots until his mind is thinking shot first instead of pass. That Alex has made some of those adjustments and has come out of it is great for him and a great sign for his future.
CSN: You brought up Crosby. When Ovechkin was struggling a lot of people around the league said it was no longer fair to compare the two players. Many wondered if Ovechkin would ever score 40 goals again. Now he’d be on pace to finish with more than 50. How do you feel about that?
Milbury: There was reason for serious doubt and that’s what I tried to point out. I mean, Crosby was at such a different level. Every facet of his game was fine-tuned. Alex has come back with a vengeance and I’m going to be very curious to see this pan out during the playoffs. Please don’t take this like I’m raining on his parade because he’s played so well, but the fact of the matter is he plays in the worst division in hockey and the large majority of his goals [21 of 26] have come against non-playoff teams. That’s not my opinion, that’s just fact. So he’s going to have to continue to play at this level. All great players have to establish themselves as clutch playoff performers if they really want to achieve greatness. Last year his ice time was cut in the playoffs and now it’s time he steps up in the playoffs. As Adam Oates said, he’s gotta be the man.