Alex Ovechkin raised his arms in the air but never cracked a smile. Red light turning and Verizon Center crowd cheering, the Washington Capitals star was surrounded by teammates, then fist-pumped on the way back to the bench but never jumped into the glass or flashed the trademark grin that marked his first few NHL seasons.
Ovechkin still enjoys scoring goals, but he’s no longer the kid at Christmas he used to be. The goals don’t come quite as easily anymore, at least not often enough to drown out the wave of criticism around him. Down from the high of being unquestionably one of the best players in the world, Ovechkin is now in the midst of a career transformation under coach Adam Oates but taking plenty of heat in the process.
“He’s going to be questioned because of who he is every single day,” former NHL defenseman Aaron Ward said. “You expect the magnificence and you expect the never-seen-before. When it’s not coming, then people are quicker to jump down his back.”
At 27 years old, Ovechkin’s hair has tinges of gray after 581 games, 350 goals and 352 assists going into Tuesday’s game at Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The rivalry that electrified the league for years isn’t the same because it’s no longer Ovechkin vs. Crosby.
It’s Ovechkin vs. himself and the weight of expectations he earned with two Hart Trophies, a 13-year, $123 million contract and more.
“It’s just 65 and 56 [goals in a season], 110 points, all these different numbers he’s put up there his first five years in the league were just crazy,” ex-NHL forward Mike Johnson said. “Because he set the bar so high, I can make it very clear: He’s still very, very good. He’s just not what he once was.”
Ovechkin doesn’t think he’s a different player. “No. Same,” he said. With 11 goals this season, he would be on pace for 32 in 82 games.
“My game is fine,” the Caps’ captain said. “I know 100 percent I have chances every game. If I’m gonna use 50 percent of chances every game, it’s gonna be very good numbers.”
But those around the sport look at Ovechkin’s fall so closely, Ward said, because it’s been so “drastic.”
In the midst of trying to change his game yet again, Ovechkin isn’t the same dynamic threat he was as recently as three years ago, when the Caps put up historical statistics in running over the rest of the NHL.
“I don’t know if it’s him [who is] different. I think their team is just different,” Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. “Playing against Alex when it was [his] rookie year, he was everywhere all over the ice and finishing everything that moved, which was great.”
Statistically, the drop-off from Ovechkin’s first four seasons to the past three is pronounced. After scoring 269 goals in his first 396 games (0.68 a game), he has 81 in his past 185 (0.44 a game). Aside from some brilliant flashes, like his Feb. 23 hat trick, it’s hard to see the same player.
“You can ask any player that, if they’re the same player they were years ago,” Caps defenseman Mike Green said earlier this season. “Everybody strives to do their best, but sometimes you go through rough patches where pucks aren’t going in and whatnot.”
Ovechkin and Oates have said time and again the chances are there. Perhaps they weren’t available in the same quantity in the past couple of years as defenses discovered ways to slow down his torrid scoring pace.View Entire Story
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