Alex Ovechkin says he hasn’t changed, but game isn’t same for Capitals star

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“You come in and you have the assets that are really what make you tick,” said Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller, a former Canadiens assistant credited with Ovechkin’s struggles against Montreal in the 2010 playoffs. “You try to pick up on some of the tendencies that guys do and try to take away his strengths.”

And it’s not like his strengths were much of a secret. Opponents probably could see Ovechkin’s moves in their nightmares.

“That kind of hanging out for the one-timer and getting way ahead of the play and the rush to the inside with the wrist shot,” Johnson said. “The things that were kind of staples in his game that were successful early, goalies get used to, defensemen get used to and they play him a little differently and they play him accordingly.”

Some point to the 2010 Winter Olympics and Russia’s deflating loss to Canada as the beginning of Ovechkin’s fall from grace. Others point to the Montreal series months later. NHL Network analyst and ex-league executive Craig Button said it didn’t help Ovechkin to have three coaches (Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter and now Oates) in the span of 18 months.

But Johnson didn’t want to point to a specific moment. And given Ovechkin’s bullish, physical style that Oates knows is hard to maintain, it’s reasonable to think the decline was gradual.

“Only a few years ago, when he was scoring 50 and 60 goals, he had the ability to physically overwhelm the opponent,” Johnson said. “That was with his speed, reckless style and the shot and all those offensive elements that people just didn’t have an answer for.

“Even for a guy built like him, it takes its a toll on you. He just doesn’t have that kind of recklessness offensively that he had early that was so effective for him.”

A-Rod of the NHL

Unable to sustain an all-world level of play and production, Ovechkin is a popular punching bag for national analysts. NBC’s Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire and Jeremy Roenick have taken aim, as have P.J. Stock of “Hockey Night in Canada” and many others.

“The problem for Ovechkin is it’s very black and white when he’s not successful,” said Ward, now an analyst for TSN in Canada. “You know when he’s on and when he’s off because you can see it. And it’s a double-edged sword. He’s not a guy that can hide.”

Jim “Boomer” Gordon of SiriusXM’s NHL Network Radio called Ovechkin the “Alex Rodriguez of the NHL.” After watching Ovechkin try to adjust to the Caps’ changes in style, Button can’t help but feel some of the criticism is unwarranted.

“He’s sacrificed, he’s played more defense, whatever you want to call it,” Button said. “Now he’s playing defense, now they’re saying, ‘Well, Alexander Ovechkin isn’t the same player.’ I remain baffled that he’s damned if he does and he’s damned if he doesn’t.”

Center Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps’ other franchise cornerstone, doesn’t believe the criticism is fair. Oates actually takes it personally.

“I want him to keep playing better because I don’t want Mike Milbury to say that about him,” he said. “That’s why we constantly try and talk about playing better, try and minimize those mistakes because everybody tries to take a big man down.”

Being the center of attention comes with its negatives. Crosby noted that “there’s always expectations” and eyes on Ovechkin.

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