Welcome back, Mr. Ovechkin.
Alex Ovechkin's ridiculously quick release, alarmingly powerful follow-through, and his contagious trademark gap-toothed smile have returned to the Washington Capitals in a dramatic way at the most opportune time.
Ovechkin has 7 goals in his last five games, 9 goals in his last seven, and 16 goals in the past 25 games (a 52-goal pace over an 82-game season) he's played since his three-game suspension that bridged the All-Star break. He's up to 36 goals for the season, tying him with Phil Kessel for fifth in the NHL.
Why the sudden turnaround for Ovechkin, who leads the NHL with 10 goals this month?
1. It seems like he's changed the timing on his release.
Ovechkin's old move of powering down the left wing, cutting to the middle and using a defenseman as a screen for his snap shot became predictable. Now it appears he's either holding the puck for a split-second longer or firing it quicker. Both ways make it harder on the goalie and get the defenseman off balance. It's made him unpredictable again. He also isn't just firing away. For instance, go back and watch his goal against Chicago -- he carried the puck down the left side, but instead of shooting through Duncan Keith, Ovechkin made a fancy move to get around him so he could beat Corey Crawford 1-on-1 from in close.
2. He's creating room for himself.
Ovechkin isn't getting many lucky goals. He's creating his chances by being in constant motion. It's hard for any defensive player standing still to catch Ovechkin when the Caps have the puck in the offensive zone. Ovechkin is creating chances and extra space for himself by moving his feet. If he is stationary, it only means he's setting himself up for an open shot as his teammates work the puck on the strong side of the ice. Even then, though, he's always tracking the puck, looking for a goal.
Vancouver forward Daniel Sedin is out for the foreseeable future with a concussion thanks to Duncan Keith's elbow, which earned the Chicago defenseman a five-game suspension.
Sedin's injury, especially if his absence extends into the playoffs, could be a crushing blow to a team that is aiming for the franchise's first Stanley Cup. However, Sedin's injury also has created an opportunity for David Booth, Mason Raymond and Zack Kassian to become more accountable offensively.
Raymond and Kassian have been playing on the top line with Henrik Sedin while Booth is on the second line with Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows. Life for Henrik Sedin, Kesler and Burrows got harder the moment Keith's elbow connected with Daniel Sedin's head, but for now it's up to Raymond, Booth and Kassian to take the heat off of them.
Left Wing - VAN
GOALS: 10 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 19
SOG: 116 | +/-: 9
SOG: 116 | +/-: 9
Booth, for one, has so much more to offer. He has no points in his last five games and only 6 points in the last 19. A 60-point scorer with Florida four seasons ago, Booth has to put some more urgency into his game to get the Canucks' some results.
Raymond, a healthy scratch just five games ago, has been involved more recently. He scored a pair of goals and had an assist in wins at Dallas and Colorado last week, but he went the previous nine games without a point. Raymond's ice time has gone up since Daniel Sedin left the lineup, so clearly coach Alain Vigneault believes he is capable. He also knows he can't scratch him again as long as Daniel Sedin is out.
Kassian, the powerful rookie forward, is the wild card. He may not be ready to be a consistent top-six forward, but flanking Henrik Sedin with the speedy Raymond on the other side could be the best thing to happen to Kassian. There is no real pressure on him to score, but if he plays big in the corners and in front of the net, he could wind up with some points, even if it's by accident.
Martin Brodeur was 19 years old when he made his first NHL start -- March 26, 1992, exactly 20 years ago Monday.
Brodeur is 39 now (he'll turn 40 on May 6). His 651 career victories are exactly 100 more than Patrick Roy, who held the NHL record for most wins until Brodeur set the new standard March 17, 2009. His 118 shutouts are 15 clear of the previous record, held by Terry Sawchuk. He also holds a multitude of other NHL goaltending records, including most games played, most minutes played in a career and a single season, and most shootout wins.
Goalie - NJD
GAA: 2.49 | SVP: 0.904
GAA: 2.49 | SVP: 0.904
Brodeur is four wins shy of 30 this season, a new benchmark number at this late stage in his career. If he gets to 30, he'll pass Roy for the record of most 30-win seasons. He already holds the record with eight 40-win seasons; no one else has more than three.
Judging by the rest of the Devils' regular-season schedule, Brodeur could start all six games, considering they do not have any back-to-backs. Four of the games are at home and three are against teams that are eliminated from the playoff race, save for the mathematics involved.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz is one win shy of No. 500 for his career. Trotz can become the 17th member of the 500-win fraternity if his Predators win in St. Louis on Tuesday. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock already has been initiated and is up to 574 wins with the 41 he's picked up this season. Joel Quenneville (621) and Lindy Ruff (563) are also members.
When Trotz gets to 500, he'll tie Toe Blake for 16th place on the all-time list and move within one of the late Pat Burns for 15th.
Trotz also is about to join an even more exclusive club. Only four coaches in NHL history (Al Arbour, Ruff, Billy Reay and Blake) have recorded 500 wins with one team. Trotz will be the fifth, as he has been the only coach in Predators history and was a minor-league and collegiate coach prior to moving to Nashville.
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 36 | ASST: 25 | PTS: 61
SOG: 280 | +/-: -8
SOG: 280 | +/-: -8
That strikingly miniscule difference, coupled with the drop-off of the Maple Leafs and Jets (both in the top eight Dec. 30) is why their game Tuesday at Verizon Center is so vitally important to both teams' playoff hopes.
Washington and Buffalo each have 84 points with six games remaining, but the Capitals will take the opening faceoff as the eighth-place team in the Eastern Conference thanks to their 36 non-shootout victories. The ninth-place Sabres, who have won four in a row, only have 30 non-shootout wins this season, so to make the playoffs they're going to have to finish with more points than Washington.
The Capitals, though, are eyeing something bigger than the eighth seed. A win against Buffalo coupled with a Florida regulation loss in Montreal will move them within one point of first place in the Southeast Division and third in the Eastern Conference.
The Panthers still will have a game in hand regardless of the outcomes Tuesday, but they're winless in their last three games (0-1-2) and Tuesday's game in Montreal is the first of a four-game road trip.
Buffalo, of course, should be watching Florida as well, because if the Panthers don't get their game back together during their road trip, the Sabres could be looking at battling either of the Southeast Division teams for eighth place.
Then again, as long as the Sabres keep winning and Ryan Miller keeps dominating, the Panthers and Capitals will be meaningless to them.
Center - PIT
GOALS: 46 | ASST: 51 | PTS: 97
SOG: 314 | +/-: 18
SOG: 314 | +/-: 18
Boy, do they look silly.
Malkin is running away with the Art Ross Trophy, and likely the Hart Trophy, as well. With seven games remaining on Pittsburgh's regular-season schedule, he could lap the field.
Seriously, is anyone even close at this point?
Steven Stamkos has had another fine season, but the Lightning are 11th in the Eastern Conference. Henrik Lundqvist has been brilliant for the Rangers, but Malkin is one of the main reasons why Pittsburgh is challenging New York for first in the East. Philadelphia's Claude Giroux also has been excellent, but his numbers don't stack up against Malkin, who continued his surge toward his first MVP award with a goal and an assist in a 5-2 win against the Devils on Sunday.
Since Crosby returned March 15 against the Rangers, Malkin has 8 goals and 5 assists. He has a League-best 97 points, nine ahead of Stamkos, and his 46 goals are second only to Stamkos.
Malkin had a major knee operation 13.5 months ago, but people never would know unless they closely examined his scar.
The saying "there is no timetable for his return" still applies to Washington center Nicklas Backstrom and Chicago captain and center Jonathan Toews, but both are getting closer to returning from their respective concussions.
Backstrom took part in his first full practice Monday with the Capitals since Jan. 6, just a few days after he took an elbow to the head from Rene Bourque in Calgary. Backstrom was cleared for contact last week, not long after taking a leave of absence late last month to return to Sweden.
He will miss his 39th straight game Tuesday, but Backstrom hasn't experienced concussion-like symptoms since he started skating two weeks ago.
Toews' symptoms (the Blackhawks still refuse to call them concussion-like) did return after he initially started skating, but so far his second comeback attempt has gone flawlessly. Toews, who has missed the last 16 games, has skated each of the last seven days and has not reported any symptoms.
Toews has not been cleared for contact yet, but he told reporters Monday that he feels he's getting close and plans on having that talk with the training staff any day now.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl