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Melrose: Caps a contender with Ovi's re-emergence

by Barry Melrose /

It was only a few years ago that we were looking at Alex Ovechkin being one of the biggest stars in the world, and then by the beginning of this season it looked as if he was the highest-paid grinder in the NHL.

Well, after writing the poor guy off at the start of the year, it's no secret that Ovi's back.

Ovechkin had been written off by just about everybody, but now he's leading the League in goals after one of the most impressive offensive stretches we've seen in years, and the Washington Capitals, who struggled throughout the first half of the season, are reaping the benefits. It certainly looks like the Caps are going to win the Southeast Division unless they completely fall apart, and even when they've had obstacles lately -- like Saturday night when they nearly blew a 5-1 lead -- the Capitals have managed to stay afloat.

Washington's 6-5 overtime win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday was a wake-up call. The Caps tried to win without playing the third period, and I think it was a good lesson for them, but the biggest news out of that game might have been that Ovechkin scored yet again. At the start of this season Ovi was hitting everything that moves and making a number of hard checks, but he wasn't scoring at all. That's completely changed now. He's scoring highlight-reel goals, his wrist shot is happening again, he's confident and he's still continuing to hit and play aggressively.

He's back to being Alex.

The really impressive thing is that he just stuck to his guns throughout the whole process, but he handled his struggles great at the same time. I never once saw him complain this season, and I never once saw him say [Adam] Oates wasn't using him right. Ovi was moved from left wing over to right wing earlier this season and some players might have complained. Most players that go into a slump right away in that situation say, "The coach moved me. I shouldn't be here. It's his fault." Alex didn't do that. He fought through and now he's back on top, which is great for him, great for the Capitals and great for the NHL.

I think part of his problem had to do with the Capitals bringing in coaches that didn't believe in his strengths. It's crazy having a thoroughbred and having him hooked to a plow, and that's what they were doing with Ovechkin. That's fine. You can win with plowhorses. We've seen defensive teams win the Stanley Cup, but it certainly doesn't play toward Ovechkin's strengths. He didn't really complain, though. He didn't say the system was terrible or that he couldn't play it. I think that was a case of a great offensive player being caught in a system that wasn't designed for his strengths. You put him on Chicago or Pittsburgh with the way they play and I don't think Ovechkin would have been in any kind of slump for any period of time. Adam Oates has come in and opened up the system a little bit, and I think Oates' demand is that he competes defensively, but he still lets him be creative offensively. Ovechkin has really responded to it.

What's really amazing is just how fast it's happened, too. Earlier this season Ovechkin was throwing his checks and hitting everything that moved, but he never had a goal-scoring chance or looked like he was ever going to get one. This wasn't a case of him getting eight great chances per night and just having his shots hit the goalie on the shoulder or hit the knobs of a goalie's stick. A lot of nights he just wasn't getting any chances, which makes it that much more surprising that he's re-emerged. I looked at the standings one day and Ovechkin had 13 goals, and I looked at the standings the next day and suddenly he had 26.

With Ovechkin playing like this, the Capitals aren't just a playoff team, they're suddenly a threat to win the East. When you look at the top teams in that conference, Boston has injuries they're dealing with, Montreal has yet to prove it can win in the playoffs and then Pittsburgh is heads and tails above everyone else in the East, but they've got injury problems of their own with Sidney Crosby being out. The East is really wide open and the Capitals, with the way they're playing right now, should be pretty confident about their chances. They've slowly become a pretty well-rounded team, and now that their superstar is finally playing like the Ovechkin of old, they're definitely a danger to the top teams in the conference.

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