Alex Ovechkin left the ice bloodied and in pain after taking a puck to the face in practice Thursday. Twenty-two stitches later, the Washington Capitals’ captain was doing fine.
“It’s hockey,” he wrote on Twitter, accompanied by a photo of his wounded chin.
Hockey is something that Ovechkin showed early in his career he could dominate. Even in recent years, amid plenty of criticism, it’s impossible to say the 27-year-old star isn’t still pretty good at it.
Lately in particular. Ovechkin has six goals and four assists in his past six games. That’s one way to silence the critics, at least temporarily.
“Right now I’m scoring goals, and I’m the king of the world,” Ovechkin said Monday. “And a couple weeks ago I was almost in the toilet. So maybe you just forget to flush me.”
“You” could mean any member of the media, or specifically NBC Sports analysts Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire, who took opportunities on the air to point out Ovechkin’s flaws. Given his $9 million salary, though, the captain isn’t and shouldn’t be immune from criticism.
But he also has every right to prove naysayers wrong. In nine games since being a minus-3 player against the New York Rangers, when McGuire ripped Ovechkin for a mistake that led to a goal by Derek Stepan, he has seven goals and five assists.
All along, coach Adam Oates has been clear about what he wants from Ovechkin. He wants as many quality scoring chances as possible, insisting the goals will come.
“The most important thing for me is the chances,” Ovechkin said. “If I have like two games, no chances, no shootings, of course it’s something bad with me and maybe our line didn’t work out. But right now everything is working, and I feel pretty good.”
Ovechkin is burying more shots recently, Oates said. That led to his being named the NHL’s first star of the week and playing a major role in the Caps going 3-1 on a crucial road trip.
The Caps are 10-3 this season when Ovechkin scores a goal. Oates likes to emphasize how much opponents key on Ovechkin, so his beating that game plan can be demoralizing.
“He carries us. And he brings an enthusiasm that is right through the lineup,” Oates said. “I’m trying to tap into it as much as I can all night long.”
Ovechkin extended his point streak to six with an assist Tuesday night against the New York Islanders, but it was the first time he didn’t score a goal since March 16 at the Boston Bruins. It would have been his first six-game goal-scoring streak since January 2008.
He has these kinds of runs every once in a while, when it looks like the puck will go in just about every time he touches it. But Ovechkin doesn’t feel like he will score every time he shoots.
“Sometimes it’s just lucky shot, sometimes it’s lucky bounce,” he said. “Linemates have to do very good job to find me. They did, and I just have to put puck in the net.”
That’s Ovechkin’s primary job and the reason he became known as one of the best players in the world very early in his NHL career. Oates knows goal-scoring is Ovechkin’s main focus, but that’s not everything.
“I know he wants to score goals and he expects to. And we do, too,” the Caps’ coach said. “And I’m going to try to put him in every single situation I can so that he will score. But during the course of 60 minutes, there’s still a lot more hockey to be played where he’s got to be a part of.”
Ovechkin playing better away from the puck could be one product of Oates moving him to right wing and asking more of him. A better all-around game would compensate if Ovechkin is never again able to score 50-plus goals in a season.
Right now, he’s on what would be a 40-goal pace in an 82-game regular season.
“That’s more than anyone but 10 guys can put together,” ex-NHL forward Mike Johnson said.
But Ovechkin continuing this kind of production has plenty to do with playmakers like Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro.
“Alex, he’s a shooter. He’s a guy that finishes those things; those plays don’t develop from the shooter,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Guys like Ribs and Nicky don’t get enough credit for that they’re the heartbeat of that play. Not taking anything away from Alex, he’s doing his job finishing those off.”
When he’s not finishing off goals and lighting the lamp, Ovechkin opens himself up to criticism. And while he can do plenty else to contribute to victories, teammates have come to expect offense.
“Scoring goals is what he’s here to do,” Holtby said.