Sometimes it's difficult to quantify what happens to the Washington Capitals when Alex Ovechkin is producing like one of the best players in the world.
Sometimes it's very easy.
“Obviously we win more,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.
Four in a row, eight of the past 10 and nine of the past 12, most recently Sunday night's 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, as Ovechkin has been nothing short of spectacular. The captain scored twice and tied for the NHL lead in goals as the Caps built a two-point lead in the Southeast Division with nine games to play.
“Right now I feel pretty good, and again we win the games it’s most important thing,” Ovechkin said. “Of course I’m happy I score the goals, the beginning of the year was pretty hard time for all organization. Now we’re back on track and it’s good.”
Ovechkin has 15 goals and six assists in the past 12 games. His 25th of the season came on an empty-netter Sunday that ensured the Caps were the hottest team in the league.
It's far from a coincidence that the star winger's production coincided with his team's movement from bottom of the Eastern Conference to division leader.
“He's a leader and I think that's why we've been so successful,” defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “I think everybody feeds off that, and when we see him finding that next level I think everybody in the room finds that next level.”
Defenseman John Carlson and right wing Joel Ward found another level by beating Ben Bishop to turn a deficit into a lead, and Ovechkin finished things off with his and the team's first empty-net goal of the season.
It was automatically a goal when Tampa Bay's Alex Killorn reached his stick out from the bench to obstruct Ovechkin, but he wasn't taking any chances after a couple of misses earlier in the season.
“Too many wasted opportunities from our team,” Ovechkin said. “I think this is our first goal in empty net. Don’t want to risk it.”
Playing the second half of a Southeast Division back-to-back, the Caps didn't risk giving up crucial points in one of their games in hand on the second-place Winnipeg Jets. Up two points on Winnipeg and eight on the Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes, it's starting to feel like the division and corresponding No. 3 seed in the East is there for the Caps.
“It’s too early to say,” Ovechkin said. “We still have big games coming up. We have to try to win as many as we can.”
Now 12-3 against division opponents, the Caps understand the importance of taking care of business in the Southeast.
“It's real important. We're going to be in the first spot there in our division,” Backstrom said. “You've just got to keep working. It's a lot of games left, and you've got to make sure you're focused every game.”
Maintaining focus amid a sprint to the finish is one thing the Caps have gotten very good at this season. Part of that is coach Adam Oates not addressing the division race with his players.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” Oates said. “The schedule’s been just crazy. Right now I think the staff and the players, we’re just treating it a game at a time, and it’s been working for us and we’re not talking about anything else, just focusing on tonight.”
Sunday night, like so many before, Ovechkin was locked in. Not surprisingly, the Caps followed.
“He's scoring on his chances; obviously he's got a lot of shots during the game,” Backstrom said. “It makes it easier. And when he has confidence, it's fun to see and helps the team a lot.”
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