Ovechkin back to form as Capitals prepare to host Penguins
Alex Ovechkin is back.
So are his Capitals.
Ovechkin, hockey's hottest player, will lead his resurgent Capitals against a Penguins team that has won two of three — despite looking sluggish most of this month — Wednesday in a showdown for first place in the Metropolitan Division at the Verizon Center.
Slowing down Ovechkin will be the Penguins' primary focus.
“He's playing dynamic hockey,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
Ovechkin has scored 17 goals in 19 games this season. Despite missing two games with an injury, he is on pace to score a career-high 73 goals.
His troubles between 2010 and 2012 — he scored only 70 goals in those two regular seasons, well off his historical pace — are a thing of the past. He claimed his third MVP trophy last season by scoring 32 goals in the lockout-shortened season, and while Penguins center Sidney Crosby was a lock to win that award before he suffered a broken jaw, Ovechkin's resurgence was evident.
Now, it is thunderous.
“I'm really not so surprised,” Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “The skill was always there, the ability to score goals was always there.”
Ovechkin's career has covered three distinct chapters.
The first five seasons of Ovechkin's time with the Capitals saw the 28-year-old Moscow native win two MVPs while leading the Capitals to prominence. He and Crosby widely were regarded as the NHL's two best players.
Ovechkin averaged 54 goals per season during his first five seasons.
But something happened to Ovechkin during the next couple of seasons. He failed to hit the 40-goal mark in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. Some Penguins suggested during that time that Ovechkin had become too predictable.
The current Ovechkin is the phenom who entered the league, a rambunctious superstar whose speed, physicality and shooting are difficult to handle.
“He's back to his old habits,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “He's shooting the puck from everywhere. That's part of what makes him so dangerous.”
Fleury has been terrorized by Ovechkin at times and also made one of the signature saves of his career — the granddaddy of statement-saves when he stopped Ovechkin's breakaway effort early in Game 7 of the epic 2009 playoff series between the Penguins and Capitals.
He knows what to expect and knows stopping Ovechkin won't be easy.
“It's such a heavy shot,” Fleury said. “When he shoots it, the puck gets so high so quickly. And he shoots the puck from farther back than where most players release the shot, it's so different. It lets him shoot from different angles. It's tougher to pick up. He's the best scorer in the game.”
The consensus among the Penguins was pretty clear after Tuesday's practice. They believe Ovechkin is looking to shoot the puck more frequently, and given that his shot remains dangerous, his shoot-first mentality is paying dividends.
“Their whole team is playing better,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Their team was awful at the beginning of last year. But now the team is playing better, and they're getting him more looks.”
And he's making the most of those looks.
“Give him chances,” Niskanen said, “and he's going to get you.”