The Ovi awakening
“Be the broken or the breaker/be the giver or the undertaker
Unlock and open the door/be the healer or the faker
The keys are in your hands/realize you are your own sole creator
Of your own master plan”
– Dimmu Borgir “Gateways”
Now I didn’t just quote that lyric because the song is freakin’ awesome – which it is – but because I think it applies to the Washington Capitals, particularly star player and captain Alexander Ovechkin.
For if the Caps want to avoid yet another inglorious playoff defeat, Ovi is going to have to be all the things Dimmu Borgir was talking about. Ovi can be either the healer of the years of playoff failure that has haunted him and the Capitals franchise, or he can once again shovel dirt on another lost season. He can break through and join contemporaries Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews in hoisting the Stanley Cup or he can once again enter that handshake line watching somebody else move on.
It’s been a weird season for Ovi this year, marked by low production, for him, and occasionally indifferent play. Sports Illustrated called him a “Falling Star.”
At times this year, it’s been tough to tell if Ovechkin is indifferent or just struggling. This is a guy who for five years could be counted on for an automatic 50 goals and 100 points and to play every game the same: fast, energetic and reckless. No matter if it was a “Hockey Night In Canada” broadcast in Montreal, or if he had 18,000 people booing him in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, or if it was in Verizon Center with half the crowd wearing his jersey or if it was in front of a half-empty arena in November against Atlanta, Ovechkin always gave the same effort.
You didn’t miss a shift when the guy was on the ice, lest you miss another addition to his lengthy YouTube highlight reel.
But through the first 40 games or so, there were games when Ovechkin was a complete nonfactor. He seemed to coast and not be nearly as explosive. Ovi has 27 goals this year, a total he normally has by Christmas.
There have been a lot of explanations for Ovechkin’s struggles. Maybe it was the league figured out how to defend him. Maybe it was a mental block from the dual collapses of Team Russia in the Olympics and the Caps in the playoffs last year. Maybe it was all the criticism over his style of play, his celebrations and pretty much every breath he drew. Maybe it was the change in the team going to a more defense-oriented approach. Maybe he was just pacing himself better to be in top form for the playoffs.
Whatever the case, the good news for Caps fans is that Ovi seems to be back. You can see it out there now. The energy is there, the big hits are back and the points are starting to follow. Hell, he even reactivated his Twitter page.
In a related development, the Caps have started to win again. They haven’t been doing it by scoring goals in bunches, but by keeping things close, doing the little things and winning battles.
Once falling fast behind the youthful Tampa Bay Lightning, the Caps have now surged ahead of the Bolts for the lead in the Southeast Division. While winning the division didn’t use to mean much, this year it could be huge, since the fourth or fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs is likely to see Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, both of whom will be tough outs.
Ovechkin seems to have finally realized how to captain this team: not by being a yeller and screamer – that’s not his style – but leading by example. The team has more vocal leaders like Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble and the newly acquired Jason Arnott, but the team is still driven through Ovechkin. When he plays with high energy, the team follows.
There are many ways a superstar player can help a team besides just putting up goals and assists. True star players can help a team win even when they aren’t scoring. Ovi wasn’t doing that earlier in the season or even through his career.
But Tuesday night, in a marquee matchup with Tampa, Ovi found a way to do so. Because the Lightning were worried about stopping the line of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Knuble, the Bolts devoted an entire five-man unit to stopping the Caps top-line.
Why was this important? Because every minute the likes of Nate Thompson, Adam Hall and Dominic Moore were on the ice trying to stop Ovi was a minute Tampa Bay superscorers Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis weren’t on the ice.
In the big moments, late in the third period and in the overtime, Stamkos and St. Louis were nonfactors. If just by your mere presence on the ice you can make your opponent alter its lineup to the point where it isn’t putting its best players on the ice late in the game, you’re helping your team win.
Meanwhile, Ovechkin was all over the place, creating chances, playing in his old Tasmanian Devil style. That he topped it off with the winning shootout goal – in which he undressed Bolts goalie Dwayne Roloson so bad he left poor Roli flopping all over the ice like a dying perch – was appropriate. Late in the Tampa game was a showcase of the new Ovi, playing more of a team game, but with the old energy, confidence and game-breaking skill.
The next game against the Edmonton Oilers was even better, including a highlight-reel sequence when Ovi showed off the whole package. First, he tracked down Oilers defenseman Kurtis Foster from behind, stripped him of the puck and started a two-on-zero with center Marcus Johansson. Ovi and Johansson then executed four straight passes before Ovi roofed a shot on helpless Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. It was truly a breathtaking goal for its combination of hustle, skill and teamwork.
Alex Ovechkin has undergone several transformations over the past two years as he and the Capitals look to find the right mix to bring a championship to D.C. Playoff time is coming, time for this organization – which has enough playoff baggage to sink an ocean liner – and this player to atone for the failures of the past.
The keys are in his hands.