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Ovechkin hopes rest will restore scoring touch

by Corey Masisak
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin had one of his virtuoso performances Feb. 7 when the rival Pittsburgh Penguins were in town, scoring three goals and an assist to propel his Washington Capitals to a dramatic comeback triumph.

Almost a month has passed since then and, believe it or not, that was the last time Ovechkin scored an NHL goal. The time lapsed includes the Olympic break, but Ovechkin has gone five games without scoring -- his longest such streak of the season.

"Every I've been here Alex has had a little bit of a stretch where he just can't find the net and then the next thing you know, once he gets one he gets 10 in four games and that's the way he's been," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "This is his little funk and I expect him to come out of it real soon."

Boudreau is correct -- last season Ovechkin had a nine-game drought early in the season that coincided with his grandfather being ill in Russia. Even during his 65-goal campaign in 2007-08, he went seven straight contests without a goal.

Ovechkin's mini-slump wraps around a 17-day break for the Winter Olympics, so it is hard to look at the five games as a set. It's possible he had trouble concentrating during the final days before the biggest tournament of his life in the three games before the break.

It is also pretty plausible that his hectic travel schedule after Russia was eliminated from the Olympics has had something to do with his uneven play in his first two games back. Ovechkin participated in the closing ceremonies in Vancouver and traveled through the night to be at Capitals practice the next morning.

He practiced Monday and Tuesday mornings and then had to play back-to-back games Wednesday and Thursday nights. Ovechkin did not practice Friday, and the day off helped him and refresh and adjust to his normal schedule.

"I don't feel weird, but I did feel a little bit tired because of the different time [zone] and everything like this," Ovechkin said. "It is just a moment and a couple days and right now I feel a lot better."

Added center Nicklas Backstrom, who was also in Vancouver: "It was harder than I would have believed. Even it was just three hours, you really feel it for a couple days. Right now I feel a lot better than I did when we first came back. Hopefully it will get better, but it was tougher than I thought."

Ovechkin looked like the world's most dominant offensive player in the first period Thursday against Tampa Bay. But Lightning goaltender Mike Smith made a pair of saves that had Ovechkin peering toward the rafters at Verizon Center in disbelief, and he finished the night with only a secondary assist and three shots on goal.

"He started off last game with a real good first period but then we ran into all the problems with the penalties and he ended up sitting and getting cold and didn't get as much ice time as normal," Boudreau said. "I'm not worried about Alex at all. He might be in a so-called slump for him but he's still No. 1 in the league so he'll get over it."

While Ovechkin might not be scoring goals at his typical pace, linemate Mike Knuble is one of the hottest players in the League. Signed away from Philadelphia to a two-year contract this offseason, Knuble had only seven goals in his 30 games with the Capitals, but he has 18 in the past 22 and is now fourth on the team – just one behind Backstrom and five shy of Alexander Semin.

The stretch of success began with Boudreau putting Knuble on the top line and leaving him there, instead of flipping him and Semin back and forth. Knuble's work around the net has proved to be a perfect complement to Backstrom's wizardry with the puck and Ovechkin's penchant for firing it toward the cage.

Not only could Knuble reach 30 goals for the first time since 2005-06, but Ovechkin is only six assists shy of his career best.

"[Knuble] is a great player with a lot of experience and he's helping us a lot," Backstrom said. "It is good for our line. Me and Alex, we're not as experienced as Mike. He's been in this for so long and he is talking to us and giving us advice so it is good."

The visiting Rangers, who come to town outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference, hope to have their big gun, Marian Gaborik, back in the lineup. Gaborik, a 35-goal scorer, missed the first two games after the Olympic break with a lower-body injury.

David Steckel and Matt Bradley were among the healthy scratches for the Capitals against Tampa Bay – a byproduct of the team's new 25-man roster after making four trades Wednesday – and Brendan Morrison will not play against the Rangers.

Morrison has been the team's No. 2 or 3 center this season, but he has only one goal since Christmas after beginning his tenure in Washington with 10 in his first 37 games. Boyd Gordon, Quintin Laing, Tyler Sloan and John Erskine will also be healthy scratches against New York.

Jose Theodore will be in net for the Capitals and he is expected to face Alex Auld, with Henrik Lundqvist earning a night off after making 50 saves Thursday in a 5-4 overtime loss to Pittsburgh.

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