Not too long ago, the NHL revolved around the twin suns of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. You think back to the 2009 playoffs, when they matched each other goal for glorious goal in a seven-game shootout. It was only the Eastern semifinals, sure, but has hockey had a more mesmerizing two weeks in the past decade? You were afraid to blink, afraid you might miss Ovie or Sid the Kid doing something supernatural.
Ovechkin was 23 then; Crosby, 21. The future was theirs — or so it seemed. But as the Washington Capitals prepare to play the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Thursday, much has changed. Sid is still sidelined, as he has been since Jan. 5, due to a concussion and its after-effects. Ovie, meanwhile, is coming off his worst season and beginning to drop hints that the Great 8 isn’t quite as great as he used to be.
Monday night, after Ovechkin was minus-2 in a 6-5 shootout win over Tampa Bay, coach Bruce Boudreau said his captain had “a long way to go to get to where he needs to be.” Wednesday at Kettler Iceplex, he softened that assessment, but only a little. This time he said:
“If this was Game 38 and he had one point in a two-game stretch [as Ovie has had in the first two games of the season], I don’t think people would be being overwhelmed. … He could have been better [against the Lightning], but there’s a lot of guys who could have been better.”
Where do I begin? First of all, none of those guys has a $124 million contract. Ovie does. He isn’t just one of the herd; he’s supposed to lead.
Secondly, this is later than Game 38. This is Game 84 — 82 last season and two this season. That’s why some folks are “being overwhelmed.” They expected Ovechkin to come out blazing in these first few weeks, to prove that last year’s drop-off to 32 goals was just an aberration. But so far he’s looked like the same player, like this is the new normal for him.
And if that’s the case, [insert primal scream here].
Yes, Ovie missed some time before the opener because of the death of an uncle. And yes, the season is still young. Heck, in other years we wouldn’t have given it a second thought if he hadn’t put the puck in the net in the first two games. But this isn’t like other years. This is the year after he finished 14th in the league in goals — he had never been out of the top four before — and only managed seven on the power play.
Ovechkin’s famous boast is that “Russian machine never breaks.” But “Russian machine” may, at some point, start getting fewer miles per gallon. Are we at that point now? Is Ovie no longer an unstoppable force of nature? Has he devolved into a lower life form — from superstar to very good hockey player?
Asked to evaluate his performance this season, Ovechkin said, “I think minus-2 is not that good. But I have a couple of chances to score goals. If one goes in. … I think our line has to play better 5-on-5. [It was on the ice for two even-strength goals by the Lightning.]”
Ovechkin is closing in on his 500th NHL game, hard as it is to believe. You wonder about the toll those games have taken, given how physically he plays and how much of a target he is. Granted, he’s 26, but is it possible he’s a high-mileage 26 - 26 going on 30?
These thoughts cross your mind when the Caps are getting ready for their first meeting of the season with the Pens and you realize that, well, the excitement level isn’t quite there. Ovie hasn’t been acting like Ovie — except in spurts — and Crosby remains out of the lineup (along with Evgeni Malkin, who tore up his knee last year and is now dealing with a lower-body injury). There are reports Crosby might be close to returning, but they’re just that, reports.
It’s all so disorienting — kind of like a concussion. As Mike Knuble said, “You watch that hit over and over again” — the collision between Crosby and the Capitals‘ David Steckel in the 2011 Winter Classic that was the beginning of Sid’s problems — “and it’s just coincidental contact. A guy’s just skating by. Then you watch a guy absolutely take a 100 percent hit on the head and pop right up.”
With other injuries — broken bones, blown-out knees and the like — you can pretty accurately predict how long a player will take to heal, Knuble said. But with concussions “everybody’s different. It seems like everybody’s got a different [threshold] of what their head can take. It’s very mysterious.”