- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Washington Capitals last night denied a report in a Russian newspaper that said star left wing Alex Ovechkin is trying to play with a groin injury.

“Not true,” general manager George McPhee said when asked about the report in Sports Express, a daily newspaper based in Moscow that is circulated throughout Russia.

The report, written after Atlanta beat the Caps 4-3 in overtime Saturday night thanks to a goal by former Russian star Ilya Kovalchuk, said the Washington player is being treated for a groin injury that’s hindering his performance.

There has been constant speculation almost since the day training camp opened that Ovechkin was playing hurt. He has not looked like the same player who won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie last season, and his offensive performance has been off.

This season, Ovechkin has two goals and two assists. The two goals came in the same game, a 5-2 win over Carolina. Ovechkin has been held without a goal in four exhibition games and three of four regular season games.

The subject of a possible injury has come up repeatedly after games or practices, and the Caps and the player have repeatedly denied there was a problem.

Ovechkin participated in the full practice yesterday and did not appear hindered.

Power slump

The Capitals are focused this season on improving their special teams, which were near the bottom of the league last year.

Four games in, any sense of improvement depends on how the numbers are spun.

The Caps have won only one of four games this season, and their inability to score on the power play cost them again Saturday night. With Atlanta down two men for more than a minute and a half early in the second period, the Caps managed only two harmless shots. On their nine power-play opportunities, Washington scored just once, losing in overtime.

While the Capitals have improved from 26th in the power-play rankings last season to 21st this season, that’s only because other teams have done worse. Washington’s success rate has fallen from 14.7 percent to 12.9, with performances like Saturday’s propelling the slide. And while only one team (Chicago) scored on less than 14 percent of its power-play chances last season, nine are doing so this year.

Coach Glen Hanlon acknowledged yesterday that what should be the second power-play unit — Alexander Semin (two power-play goals), Kris Beech and Richard Zednik — is outworking the first unit of Alex Ovechkin (one power-play goal), Dainius Zubrus and Chris Clark. That is perplexing considering the Zubrus unit has been together for a season.

Hanlon also said the team has to relocate the missing link, a player with a powerful shot who can hammer away from the point. Too often this season, forwards have concentrated solely on trying to execute back-door plays while ignoring the points. Sensing this, the opposition can ignore two of the five attackers, and suddenly sides are even.

“You need movement,” Hanlon said. “We’ve got to get on pucks, shoot pucks, establish a point shot and have people in front of the net. Once that’s established, then you can work on plays.”

Perhaps more importantly, though, there has been improvement with penalty-killing. The team has risen to 18th from a woeful 28th at the end of last season, and the kill percentage has grown from 78.9 to 82.6. The difference isn’t huge, but it is a step in the right direction and comes at a time when two of the club’s top penalty-killers, Matt Pettinger and Boyd Gordon, are out with injuries.

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