Expectations remain high for Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals as the race to the NHL playoffs kicks into overdrive. One of the most feared men in hockey is, like his team, attempting to rediscover himself before this year's regular season woes tear him apart.
The Caps have walked a fine line this season, flirting with disaster on numerous occasions. They seem to be doing just enough to keep their heads above the water, playing like the way they played in a 2-1 victory over Buffalo on Sunday. Unfortunately, such uninspired play isn't a recipe for sustained success. The onus is on Ovechkin to put a stop to the lackadaisical brand of puck on display.
For whatever the reason, Ovechkin has lacked his usual burst for much of the season. The "it" factor, ever-present throughout his career, has been snuffed out about as often as his patented curl and drag. Maybe he is out of shape or injured. Perhaps he is saving himself for the playoffs. Who knows?
Regardless, the Capitals need Ovechkin to be the sparkplug on the ice. The Caps live or die on the production of their stars, especially their high profile captain. While Mike Knuble and Scott Hannan seem to have a handle on the team behind closed doors, it's up to the Great Eight to raise the level of play across the board by setting the tone.
Recently, he has done just that for a team lacking a sense of urgency as the playoffs approach. He has skated an average of 23:09 per game during the current road trip, and though a large chunk of that has been on the power play, he has been more engaged in each and every contest.
As the stretch run for the postseason begins to take shape, Ovechkin has 10 points in his last eight games while registering 40 shots on goal in that time. He is getting to scoring areas and creating space for teammates by aggressively driving the puck into the offensive zone. In short, he has flipped the switch Bruce Boudreau referred to earlier in the month. Opposing teams don't like to see those flashes and it is only a matter of time before his efforts will help open things up for Nicklas Backstrom and friends.
The entire roster is feeling the pressure of living up to the lofty expectations they generated through three years of tremendous success. The Caps are unaccustomed to hardship, but have experienced stretches of futility this time around. How they respond to them will determine the outcome of the season while possibly altering the direction George McPhee wants to travel with a few of his underachieving players.
However, re-focusing on Ovechkin, it is his enthusiasm which is so infectious. Washington thrives on the energized performances of their superstar. Ovechkin doesn't offer ideal leadership skills, but makes up for it when he takes the body, shoots the puck and scores goals.
Ovechkin's renewed intensity on the ice is a must considering he isn't enough of a vocal presence in the locker room. It was a questionable maneuver to stick the "C" on his sweater in the first place, but with a sluggish Ovechkin, it makes the shaky decision a flat out bad one. Every team needs a dynamic leader and the Capitals are no exception. When Ovechkin skates circles or cherrypicks, it sends a bad message. When he shows an interest in mucking it up around the dirty areas and establishing puck possession, Washington responds accordingly.
I don't question his desire to win. We saw his exuberance manifested in the hop-skip he took into Mathieu Perreault's arms after a power play goal gave Washington the lead over Buffalo on Sunday. He genuinely loves the game and has a passion for showing off his skill and athleticism. However, I do wonder if his desire and that of his team's are overshadowed by the fame which has come with being the only good franchise in the Nation's Capital.
The Capitals don't respond well to adversity. There are nights where they come into the building expecting to win and when they don't things begin to unravel. It's Ovechkin's responsibility to ensure they develop and maintain a killer instinct on the ice at all times. He has his teammates' respect and with that in hand, his input both as a player and as a leader is invaluable.
Maybe the Capitals rely upon him too often, but with trade rumors floating around and uncertainty on the ice, it's evident Washington needs a productive Ovechkin now more than ever.