Maybe Alex Ovechkin still is elite after all.
After being dormant for most of the first half of this season, Ovechkin has awoken like a bear coming out of hibernation and has the Washington Capitals on top of the Southeast Division with 42 points heading into a showdown with the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday.
The difference in his production is striking and, not surprisingly, it correlates directly to Washington becoming a winning team after a horrific start to the season.
On March 13, Ovechkin had nine goals and the Capitals were 14th in the Eastern Conference with 20 points (10-14-1). In the 14 games since, Ovechkin has 16 goals and the Capitals are 10-3-1.
If you go back further, Washington is 18-9-1 in its past 28 games and Ovechkin has contributed 36 points on 22 goals and 14 assists.
1. Ovechkin has been far less predictable
"He was always, 'Give me the puck and I'm going,'" NHL Network analyst Craig Button told NHL.com.
SOG: 176 | +/-: 0
They stopped letting Ovechkin come at them with speed by playing higher in the zone. It prevented him from generating enough power to drive to the net.
"I think the first thing that Adam [Oates, coach] really tried to convey to Alex is you've got to manage your speed," Button said. "If you're coming at one speed, it's easy to play you."
Button likened it to a pitcher in baseball.
"If a pitcher just throws only fastballs he probably won't last very long," he said. "The best pitchers keep the hitters off-balance. That to me is what Alex is doing."
Now you'll find Ovechkin trailing the play more than he ever did in the past. He'll come into the zone late, wait for the drop pass and then either make a power move or put a hard shot toward the net.
Just look at his first goal against the Carolina Hurricanes on April 2 -- he stopped at the right point, waited for Nicklas Backstrom to enter the zone with the puck, collected the drop pass and then used a snap shot from the top of the right circle to beat Dan Ellis.
Carolina defenseman Tim Gleason was on his heels, still backtracking, because this time Backstrom was the one coming with speed. He couldn't challenge Ovechkin's shot because he was at least two stick lengths away at the time he let the puck go.
Ovechkin also is driving and dishing more than he has in the past, creating space for others and then going to the net after he makes a pass. He's scoring off deflections in front, something he rarely ever did before.
"Now you have Alex Ovechkin and you don't know where he's coming from and it's not one speed, not that one power move," Button said. "I see Alex being prolific from all over the ice now."
2. Washington's power play is hot
OVI ON FIRE
Alex Ovechkin has 17 goals in the past 20 games, including 16 goals in the past 14 games. Here's a look at some of Ovechkin's most prolific 20-game stretches in his career:
- 2005-06: 17 goals from Jan. 10 - March 8
- 2006-07: 16 goals from Nov. 4 - Dec. 16
- 2007-08: 22 goals from Dec. 29 - Feb. 13; 17 goals from Feb. 24 - April 5
- 2008-09: 18 goals from Nov. 10 - Dec. 18; 18 goals from Jan. 31 - March 14
- 2009-10: 18 goals from Oct. 1 - Nov. 18
- 2010-11: 11 goals from Jan. 11 - March 9
- 2011-12: 13 goals from Feb. 13 - March 25 (also from Feb. 28 - April 7)
- 2012-13: 17 goals from March 2 - April 7
Eight of Ovechkin's 16 goals in the past 14 games have come on the power play. Overall, the Capitals' power play is operating at a 25.5-percent clip (13-for-51) in the past 14 games.
Ovechkin is scoring on the power play in large part because the other players on the ice with him also are threats and demand respect from the opposing penalty kills.
For example, Ovechkin went backdoor to score both of his power-play goals against the Florida Panthers this past Saturday because the defensemen, particularly Tyson Strachan, had to honor the passer and turn his back on Ovechkin, leaving No. 8 the freedom to skate toward the left post and wait for the pass.
Mike Ribeiro gave it to him on the first goal with a pass through the blue paint from below the right circle; Backstrom got the puck to him for the second goal from almost the exact same position on the ice.
"They've created multiple points on the attack with the power play," Button said. "Opponents have to defend other areas."
3. Ovechkin is back with Backstrom
Never underestimate the power of chemistry.
Ovechkin and Backstrom have built up their chemistry through years of playing with each other. Oates reunited them a while ago and it's paying dividends.
Backstrom has assisted on 11 of Ovechkin's 16 goals in the past 14 games; Ovechkin has the primary assists on two of Backstrom's three goals in the same time period.
"Everybody knows he's one of the best centers in the League," Ovechkin said of Backstrom during an interview Monday that aired on the team's website. "It's fun to play with him. When he's feeling his game, it's hard to stop him."
The addition of a healthy Mike Green also has helped because he gives the Capitals another scoring threat from a different position, further creating a mess for the opposition.
Green creates offense with his shot or the threat of his shot and by joining the rush. In doing so he creates more room for the forwards and, in turn, Ovechkin.
4. Ovi and Oates have a relationship built on trust
More and more you're hearing Ovechkin talk about his relationship with Oates and the trust he feels the coach has in him and that he has in the coach. That trust comes from Oates' honest approach with Ovechkin and the captain's willingness to take what he hears and incorporate it into his game.
"It's not what Adam or Dale [Hunter] or Bruce [Boudreau] is telling Alex, it's does he believe in what they're telling him," Button said. "There's a period of time where that needs to gestate."
Ovechkin attempted to change last season, when Hunter wanted him to play in a more defensive-oriented system. However, Hunter showed his distrust in Ovechkin by benching him late in games, especially when the Capitals were trying to protect a lead instead of looking build on it.
Oates didn't want any gray areas with Ovechkin.
"I told him, 'You are the man, we know that, and I want to give you every opportunity to succeed and be the man for us,'" Oates said.
But Oates demands that Ovechkin produce within the team concept, and at the beginning of the season he identified the need to have Ovechkin playing on the right wing.
They talked about it. Oates explained his reasoning. They worked on it. They watched video. They studied the differences of what Ovechkin was doing on the left side to what he needed to do on the right.
It's working now.
5. Ovi and the Caps are feasting on the East's bottom-tier teams
Eight of Washington's 10 wins since March 14 have come against teams in the bottom seven of the Eastern Conference standings. Ovechkin has 13 goals in those eight wins.
If you go back to the start of the season, the Capitals are 16-5-2 against teams currently outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference. Ovechkin has a combined 20 goals in those 16 wins.
So yes, while Ovechkin indeed is more unpredictable and thriving on a hot power play, skating on the right side of Backstrom and comforted by the honest, trusting relationship he's developed with Oates, the schedule has played a role in the Capitals' climb to first place in the Southeast Division and the captain's climb up the scoring chart to tie Steven Stamkos in the Rocket Richard Trophy race.
"The puck is not going to stop going in because he's too good," Button said.