For three games, Alex Ovechkin perched in press boxes watching the Washington Capitals compete without him. For three games, he sat in a suit alongside members of the coaching staff, smacking his hand on a countertop rather than finishing a shoulder check when he observed something he didn’t like on the ice.
On Saturday, Ovechkin is back after serving the longest suspension of his NHL career when the Capitals visit the Montreal Canadiens for a matinee meeting at Bell Centre.
Given Washington’s position outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture heading into back-to-back games this weekend, a rested Ovechkin is a welcome addition for a team already playing without Mike Green (sports hernia) and Nicklas Backstrom (concussion).
Ovechkin said he is ready to come back.
“I am pretty excited. I’m fresh. I feel like I miss hockey a lot,” Ovechkin said. “It’s pretty hard to watch the games, you can’t help your teammates. You can’t help the guys to win the games.”
The Capitals (26-20-4, 56 points) went 1-1-1 and earned three of a possible six points while Ovechkin served his three-game suspension for a charge against Pittsburgh defenseman Zbynek Michalek on Jan. 22.
Because Ovechkin’s suspension stretched across the all-star break, and the left wing opted not to attend the event, he has gone 12 days without playing in a game. It’s the longest break he’s had during his seven NHL seasons that was not the result of an injury.
The Capitals hope the time off results in his being rejuvenated for the final 32 games of the regular season.
“We’ll certainly find out if it helped,” Troy Brouwer said. “Sometimes that long, drawn-out absence can be difficult, but he’s been around the rink and been practicing hard, trying to keep up with the pace and make sure he’s not losing his timing. He’s been working hard. The guys see that and appreciate it.”
It’s been a sub-par season offensively for Ovechkin. He has recorded 39 points (20 goals, 19 assists) through the first 47 games of the season to put him on pace for a career-low 65.
Despite Ovechkin’s low output on the scoresheet, Coach Dale Hunter is understandably eager to have arguably the Capitals’ biggest scoring threat back.
“He’s such a force he gets other people open because of his shot. We need him back,” Hunter said. “I think he’s chomping on the bit to get out there, he’s worked real hard in practice, skated with the [scratches] and took a lot of shots. I think he can’t wait to play again.”
A constant element in Ovechkin’s strongest games this season has been his physicality and willingness to stir things up with an opponent. It’s well known that hitting helps Ovechkin become more engaged in a game, that it can fuel his jump on any given night.
That was evident in Washington’s 4-3 overtime loss to Pittsburgh on Jan. 22, during which he delivered the hit he would be suspended for as well as several other big checks — but it marked his first three-point outing of the 2011-12 campaign as well.
After Ovechkin received a pair of two-game suspensions during the 2009-10 season, many believed that the punishment caused him to alter his game and take a less physical approach to his play.
When the suspension for the hit on Michalek was announced, General Manager George McPhee admitted the organization is “concerned” about the infractions resulting in a more timid Ovechkin.
“What we want him to do when he comes back is play the way he’s always played,” McPhee said in January. “We want him to be relentless, we want him to score goals, we want him to be physical.”
The rest of the Capitals agree and Brooks Laich, for one, doesn’t believe that Ovechkin will change.
“I don’t think Alex is a dirty player and I don’t think Alex thinks he’s a dirty player,” Laich said. “ . . . He’s not bred to play a non-physical, let-up type game.”