SAN JOSE, Calif. – There were multiple times at even strength Thursday night in Washington’s eventual 2-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings where the puck was a place the Capitals want to see it – on the stick of Alex Ovechkin with enough time for the star winger to get a shot off.
But despite a handful of opportunities where Ovechkin was presented with an opportunity to do what he does best and put the puck in the back of the net, the 28-year-old was just off the mark. Such has been the case for Ovechkin lately.
While Ovechkin has scored two power play goals in the past four games, the league’s leading goal scorer hasn’t converted five-on-five in 11 games, a stretch that dates back to Feb. 27 at the Florida Panthers, the Capitals’ first game back from the Olympic break.
“Just the situation when we have position in the zone, I have to find open space,” Ovechkin said. “It’s hard right now, everybody play one-on-one basically. Especially against my line they put more pressure on me, five-on-five they don’t give me any freedom so I have to find the rebound or find the open space.”
Of Ovechkin’s 46 goals, 20 have come five-on-five and he leads the Capitals in that category. But Washington has struggled to score consistently at even strength all season, and when Ovechkin isn’t able to make a dent five-on-five for this long of a stretch it is a noticeable absence.
For the first two games of this trip, Ovechkin has skated on a line with Marcus Johansson and center Jay Beagle, who is usually on the third or fourth lines. Ovechkin was scheduled to start Saturday’s contest in San Jose there as well.
It’s an unorthodox combination stemming from multiple motivations. From making the Capitals top lines tougher for opponents to match up against by splitting Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, to adding a more direct defensive sensibility to the unit – Ovechkin hasn’t been on the ice for an even-strength goal against the past two games after being on for seven in the previous five games combined — and forcing Ovechkin to take a straightforward offensive approach rather than searching for a perfect setup.
“Beags is just relentless, not thinking about the pretty play and I think that’s good for Ovi and Jojo to get that in their games sometimes,” Coach Adam Oates said. “Every once in a while you have some tic-tac-toes and you get in a habit of looking for that. You’ve got to get some dirty goals as well.”
Ovechkin hasn’t played with Beagle much over the course of his career but downplayed the adjustment required on his part to work with a more grinding center as opposed to Backstrom.
“Everybody knows the skill of Backy and Beags is different but – I think he’s more faster than Backy and he can create chances by his work ethic,” Ovechkin said, adding that the only difference is how much he focuses on making plays in and around the net. “I have to go to the net. Sometimes when I play with Backy I have to find the spot close to him so he can give me puck and I can shoot.”
While Oates said he doesn’t see the winger forcing plays to try and score at even strength, Ovechkin acknowledged that when he has chances like he did in Los Angeles – such as as a wide-open look on an odd-man rush on which he missed the net and a play where he drove to the front of the net but couldn’t get a shot off before Jonathan Quick poked the puck away — he needs to make the most of them.
Oates attributes part of Ovechkin’s even-strength dry spell to simple realities of the league at this stage as teams become more diligent in their own zone while fighting for a playoff spot and because the Capitals are playing some of the more tight-checking teams in the league, who will limit reigning Hart Trophy winner’s opportunities.
“You play stingy teams you’re not going to get a lot,” Oates said, “And scoring goes down as the season goes along.”