NHL

Crucial time for Capitals' Ovechkin

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A.J. Perez

A.J. Perez previously worked at USA Today, AOL and CBSSports.com, covering beats ranging from performance-enhancing drugs to the NHL. He has also been a finalist for an Associated Press Sports Editors award for investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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ARLINGTON, Va.

Alex Ovechkin has been depicted as a quiet leader, one who lets his composite stick do the talking.

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The Washington Capitals captain used the Bauer shaft to say plenty over the past couple of days — troubling because they were off days. He broke one stick in frustration on Wednesday and then used another to slash teammate Dennis Wideman in a scuffle on Thursday.

“He said play against me hard like in a game, so I did,” Ovechkin told reporters.

Maybe Wideman should have said to “play hard like in some games.” Harsh? Hardly. It’s not far from what former teammate Olie Kolzig and Capitals general manager George McPhee said this week: Ovechkin has issues with work ethic.

“Part of it he’s probably not feeling as loved as he used to be,” said Kolzig, who is the team’s associate goaltending coach. “He brings it on himself sometimes. . . . He has to get back to being the way he was in his younger days and maybe not get wrapped up in the rock-star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.”

McPhee, speaking a day after Kolzig’s comments on Thursday, said he didn’t disagree.

“You have to push him from time to time,” McPhee said. “A lot of the great ones have done that. With talent, sometimes the game comes easy to you. You have to remind them that you are not going to win consistently doing that.”

But should the guy wearing the “C” on his chest and whom the franchise has committed to through the 2020-21 season need to be pushed? No, especially when two of the team’s other top players — defenseman Mike Green and center Nicklas Backstrom — have been out injured and the club is sinking in the Eastern Conference standings.

Give credit to management for finally addressing publicly what has been clear to some others around the league: While there may not be an “I” in team, there often is in Ovechkin.

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Already the face of the franchise, Ovechkin was tapped as captain in January 2010 after Chris Clark was traded. And all was well and good — at least until the playoffs — as the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best record and then flamed out in the Eastern Conference playoffs for the second straight season.

Now, the Caps may not even have a chance to collapse in the postseason, and fans and media won’t even be able to blame Bruce Boudreau, who was fired in November to make way for former Caps grinder Dale Hunter behind the bench.

The Capitals begin a four-game trip against the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers on Friday night. Washington (28-23-5, 61 points) is in ninth place in the East, three points behind Toronto for the final playoff berth. Fourteen of the Caps’ remaining 26 games are on the road, where they not only have a losing record (9-15-3) but also the league’s third-worst power-play percentage (11.5 percent).

Over the past five seasons, it’s taken an average of 92 points to get the No. 8 spot in the East. The Caps have to get 31 out of a possible 52 remaining points to reach that watermark.

“We still have two months of hockey to play,” Ovechkin said. “Of course, you can’t have a big gap between teams. I have to lead the way and play much better than I am playing right now. If I do that, I think everyone will step up and play well.”

And that’s not just about scoring goals, something that’s been in a decline for a few seasons now for Ovechkin. Since his first of back-to-back goal-scoring titles in 2007-08, Ovechkin’s goal production has dropped each season. Ovechkin has 23 goals so far this season, a pace that would put him near the 32-goal mark he reached a season ago. Power forwards typically see a precipitous drop in production at 30, but Ovechkin is only 26.

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Gone along with the production is Ovechkin’s brashness.

“Alex was getting away from playing the hard, no-nonsense type of hockey, exuberant hockey, that he displayed in his first three years in the league,” Kolzig said.

Hunter admitted such displays may have been stunted, at least in part, by league discipline. Ovechkin has been suspended three times for dangerous hits, most recently three games for a collision with Pittsburgh Penguins forward Zbynek Michalek.

His stats — at least this season — can be attributed in part to the injury to Backstrom, who has been out since Jan. 3 because of a concussion. Backstrom has been able only to ride a stationary bike. McPhee said that Backstrom could be back in as little as a couple of weeks — or the injury could keep his best center sidelined until next season. Green is expected to be back from hernia surgery within the next couple of games, McPhee said.

“That’s no excuse,” Caps forward Jason Chimera said. “We have guys like Ovi and (Alex) Semin. Teams play through injuries all the time. It’s a matter of how you deal with them. Guys need to step up. We just need to play better. That’s the bottom line.”

This is the most crucial trip in Ovechkin’s captaincy. What better time to set an example — quietly, vocally or otherwise?

Tagged: Capitals, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom

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