Ovie's Game and Caps Return to Health

By Scott Lowe
Tonight’s game marks the beginning of the Washington Capitals return to health.

Or does it?

It looks like Caps heart-and-soul grinder Matt Bradley will dress for the first time in a month tonight when the Caps close out the “first half” of their season with an important Southeast Division contest in Atlanta. Oft-nicked netminder Semyon Varlamov also will return to action after missing three games with lower-body ailments.

While those two will get their feet wet with one appearance before the upcoming All-Star break, injured forward Alexander Semin and defenseman Tom Poti are hoping to be ready following the five-day respite. A week or two after that winger Eric Fehr, who was playing some of his best hockey in a Washington sweater prior to suffering a shoulder injury and missing the past five games, should be back on the ice.

If all goes as planned it will be one of the few times all season the Caps have had their entire roster – or at least their preferred roster – available to play. So if they eventually do catch a spark, get hot and go on a run, some may point to this game as the starting point. Others might say that the All-Star layoff was just what the doctor ordered, so to speak, and allowed the team to mend and prepare for its final 31 games.

In reality, Washington’s healing began last week when Alexander Ovechkin’s offensive game returned to health. While it’s easy to look at his hat trick in Toronto, his four goals and two assists in the last four games and a pair of recent consecutive multiple-point outings and say that Ovechkin is back, there’s a lot more to it than that.

When he’s on top of his game Ovechkin seems to create a legitimate scoring chance almost every time he steps on the ice. His speed causes the defense to play soft, creating space for other players such as Nicklas Backstrom to create and work their magic. And the mere threat posed by his physical presence causes turnovers even when he isn’t throwing his body around.

The entire package has re-emerged in the past 10 days or so. Even in his most recent outing against the Rangers Monday, despite not scoring Ovechkin had six shots on goal, set up his teammates for several additional chances and generally had the crowd on the edge of its seat every time he touched the puck. Not many players are capable of earning the third star in a game without managing a single point.

“I thought he’s had more jump,” Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said of his superstar following the New York tilt. “To me his speed has increased recently and his puck handling has improved and gotten a little bit better. He’s looked quicker. He’s making moves while he’s skating where before he was stiff-legged trying to make moves without moving his legs. You saw tonight in the second period he got the puck at the blue-line, got to full speed, made a move and took a great shot. It was a great opportunity. That’s what you’re used to seeing when you talk about Alex.”

What we’re used to seeing is a rare combination of separation speed – with and without the puck – skill and physical play. While Ovechkin’s desire or intensity never had come into question, the jump that makes him such a special player had been missing. But when he blew by the defense to record an empty-net goal and earn his first hat trick of the season against Toronto, it was almost as if Ovechkin wanted a Canadian national TV audience – and hence the rest of the league – to take notice that he was back.

“It’s back,” Ovechkin said in a recent postgame interview. But when pressed by reporters to elaborate on what “it” is, he brushed off further questioning. Earlier he said, “I’ve played with the puck a lot more the last few games. Our line has generated a lot more speed through the neutral zone. (Jason) Chimera brings a lot of energy to our line. We try to create some chances. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

A few weeks ago Ovechkin started reinventing himself a bit in an effort to increase his offensive production – playing more in front of the net and scratching and clawing for ugly goals – with moderate success. His return to form has corresponded with the placement of Chimera, a fast and physical player, on the top line with him and Backstrom.

Maybe having another speedy banger up front has opened up the ice a bit for Ovechkin, since Chimera scored a couple of key goals immediately after the move to give opposing teams something to think about. Or maybe Ovechkin, who has bought into Boudreau’s new more defensive system and done a better job of finding open teammates when attracting attention from multiple defenders, just feels more comfortable going full throttle knowing that both Backstrom and Chimera have the recovery speed needed to backcheck if he gets caught up ice.

Or maybe there’s another plausible explanation. Maybe Ovechkin hasn’t been playing at 100 percent for a good portion of the year. The Caps treat injuries like they are matters of national security, so you can bet that if something was wrong we would not have heard much about it as long as their superstar was able to suit up.

Think back to that early episode of HBO’s 24/7, maybe 10 days to two weeks after Ovechkin’s offensive production really had started to slow down. You know, the scene with him in the training room receiving treatment for what appeared to be a minor – albeit painful – “lower body” injury.

Ovechkin’s legs are what separate players like him from the rest of the world. Even a minor, nagging injury to such a fine-tuned performer’s legs can make the difference between being a dominant player and just another good one.

Maybe, just maybe, the Caps’ return to health really began 10 days ago. Now, with Ovechkin looking like he may be back to the Ovie of old, a nice little break from full competition on the horizon and other key teammates returning to the lineup, perhaps Washington is poised to make a run during the final 31 games.

Through the roller-coaster ride that the first 51 games have proven to be, injuries and a thin lineup have forced the Caps to adapt and learn to play a more defensive-minded style. They rank second in the league in penalty killing and seventh in goals allowed. They have three goalies 22 years of age or younger with at least four wins – the first time that’s been accomplished in NHL history. They have solidified their defensive corps with the addition of 800-game NHL-vet Scott Hannan and young blueline sensations Karl Alzner and John Carlson. They rank third in the league in faceoff percentage, with David Steckel leading the NHL at 64.2 percent.

The only missing piece is the power play, which has struggled after leading the league a year ago. The Caps had 90-plus power-play goals a year ago, compared to 20-something this year through 50 games.

But, with Ovechkin returning to form and Semin on the road back to the lineup, doesn’t it seem likely that the power play will regain its health soon as well? And then take a look at the equation:

special teams play + solid defensive system + faceoff efficiency + goaltending = ????

It still remains to be seen, but at least this year it’s hard to say that Washington isn’t willing or able to play a style that can be effective in April … May …. and June.