- The Washington Times - Friday, March 27, 2009

Six weeks ago, Alex Ovechkin was the slam-dunk choice to repeat as the NHL’s MVP.

But Ovechkin hasn’t been the most dominant player in the league on a nightly basis in recent weeks, and the Washington Capitals have plateaued as they await the beginning of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, a couple of other teams with MVP candidates have surged, and other players - namely Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and New Jersey’s Zach Parise - have garnered more attention for the award. So with seven games left in his regular season, is Ovechkin still the favorite, and does he deserve to become the first back-to-back Hart Trophy winner since Dominik Hasek in 1997 and 1998?

“He is the best player in the league,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “Who else does what he does? Who else scores as many goals and gets as many points and plays as physical? Nobody - he’s still got 20 percent more goals… and he still has more hits than anybody that would even be close to him in points. He is still the most unique player in this league - and the best.”

Ovechkin entered Thursday night with a 10-goal lead on Parise in the race for the Maurice Richard Trophy. It’s plausible that he could score nine more times to reach the 60-goal mark for the second straight season.

But Ovechkin also has not posted a multigoal game since Feb. 15 and has had several games in which he wasn’t his team’s best player. Because the Caps essentially have been assured either the No. 2 or 3 seed in the Eastern Conference for quite some time, the team has struggled to replicate last season’s strong finish. They have lost nine of their past 17 games.

“I feel strongly that he still deserves it,” said Sergei Fedorov, the Hart winner in 1994. “It is not Alex Ovechkin that is struggling - it is our whole team that is struggling. I think he still puts pucks in the net.”

Without any signature Ovechkin performances recently, voters - the members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association - who may have come close to selecting him unanimously in mid-February have had a wandering eye of late.

With a 10-point lead on Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, Malkin is likely to win the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s scoring leader. He also leads the NHL in points on the road and at even strength.

Before last month, Malkin was racking up points for a mediocre team. Now the Penguins have shot into contention for the No. 4 seed in the conference, and Malkin’s candidacy has gained steam.

Parise could challenge New Jersey’s franchise records for goals and points. Despite not having goalie Martin Brodeur much of the season, the Devils still might claim the top spot in the East.

The biggest negatives for Malkin and Parise are their teammates - a case can be made that Crosby and fill-in goalie Scott Clemmensen have been nearly as valuable to their teams.

Ovechkin still has the most third-period goals and is tied with Malkin for most points in the final 20 minutes. And no player can match his combination of production and physical play. He ranks seventh in the league with 230 hits. The only other player in the league in the top 40 in scoring and hits is Phoenix’s Shane Doan; he’s 32 points and 49 hits behind Ovechkin.

“He is the most valuable player to his team - just look at the position that we are in,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I know we’ve got good players and we’ve got a good team, but I think you look at the third-period goals and the times that we need goals in games and who comes through.

“When we needed to win, just look at the games against New Jersey and Boston and the better teams in the league and what his production has been. You’ll see in big games he is the guy we count on.”