- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2018

Alex Ovechkin has answered the challenge the Washington Capitals brass set down last offseason.

The team wanted Ovechkin to bounce back from a disappointing 2016-17, and the 32-year-old Russian superstar has done that — and more. He’s in better shape, he’s upped his scoring and he’s remained the face of the franchise while racking up more milestones.

With Ovechkin playing like he’s still in his prime, the Capitals lead the Metropolitan Division by three points with only a handful of games remaining.

But as good as he’s been, Ovechkin isn’t a lock — or even the favorite, really — to reel in his fourth Hart Trophy, the NHL’s most valuable player award.

Around the league, up-and-coming young stars like Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon are also having dominant seasons.

MacKinnon appears to be the MVP front-runner, though New Jersey’s Taylor Hall, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov are also in the mix, along with Ovechkin.

MacKinnon and the Avalanche — just one year removed from posting the NHL’s worst record — are on the cusp of their first playoff appearance since 2014. MacKinnon, 22, is third in the league in points with 92.

MacKinnon’s career-best 38 goals lead his team. A former No. 1 overall pick in 2013, MacKinnon has come into his own.

With the season winding down, though, Ovechkin could make a late Hart Trophy push.

The Capitals forward’s 44 goals lead the league and his preseason target of 50 is within reach. Before Monday’s contest against the New York Rangers, Ovechkin was accounting for a larger percentage — 18.8 percent — of his team’s scoring than any player in the league.

“There’s not many guys around the league where you can go, ‘Okay that’s 30 goals minimum,’” teammate Tom Wilson said. “Maybe 40, maybe 50. That’s pretty rare and speaks for itself. … He’s a game-changer for us, for sure. When he’s going and when he’s skating, he’s a force to be reckoned with. I don’t think there’s anyone else like him around the league.”

Awards, whether in hockey, football, movies or music, often come down to narratives. The better the story, the higher the chance those casting ballots are going to be swayed.

MacKinnon’s case, for instance, is strengthened by the fact that just a few months ago Colorado was considered one of the worst teams in the league.

New Jersey’s Hall, who has 82 points, also has a compelling story. Like Colorado, New Jersey was among the NHL’s bottom feeders, winning last year’s draft lottery. The Devils haven’t earned a playoff spot in the last five years, either. Now, they’re in the playoff race. Hall added a 26-game point streak to his resume this season.

Tampa Bay’s Kucherov, meanwhile, fits nicely into that age-old MVP-voters’ standby: Best player on the best team. Tampa Bay is leading the Eastern Conference in points.

But Ovechkin’s throwback season makes for good copy, too.

He’s rebounded a season after a career-worst .4 goals per game. He finished 2016-17 with just 33 goals, with only 16 coming when the Capitals and their opponents were at even strength.

“He’s a very proud person,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said after Ovechkin’s 600th goal. “I think he has a lot of determination and last year we were all disappointed and he was really, really crushed when he was leaving for the offseason.

“I had no doubt that he would have a really terrific year this year because he has such fortitude and pride.”

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