There, that ought to do it for another game or two. Ovechkin, it seems, responds better to the stick than the carrot. Since NBC’s Mike Milbury, during and after a Feb. 27 telecast of a Caps-Flyers game, compared Ovechkin to an 8-year-old and told him to act like a man (among other insults), Ovechkin has charged to the NHL lead in goals with 25, tied with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos entering Monday.
Ovechkin is on such a roll that even an outstretched stick from the Tampa Bay bench couldn’t stop his empty-netter Sunday night in a 4-2 victory over the Lightning. Perhaps rookie Alex Killorn was trying to protect Stamkos’s lead. The interference meant the goal was automatic, but Ovechkin put it in the empty net anyway, the first time he has managed that this season. Even the yips over hitting that unoccupied webbing have vanished.
When Milbury made his comments, Ovechkin had eight goals and seven assists for 15 points in 19 games played.
In the 20 games since, he has 17 goals and 11 assists for 28 points.
He has 21 points in his last 12 games. In addition to being tied for the league lead in goals, he’s tied for sixth in points (43) and he leads the league in power play goals (14). He leads his own team in points, finally. (Ovechkin should never not lead the Caps in points.)
In other words, whatever was wrong at the beginning of the season is gone, which, with nine regular season games to play, is bad news for the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference. He’s cured! Mike Milbury has cured him!
Listen, we all know it’s more complicated than that. Ovechkin was not Ovechkin at the start of the season. And some wondered if he would ever be Ovechkin again. My inbox started the season with prayer-like “He’ll be all right, won’t he?” and worked its way up to screechs of “Get rid of him! Get something for him! He’s washed up!” I paraphrase, for reasons of brevity and profanity.
Others have criticized Ovechkin, of course, but Milbury’s repeated tongue lashings drew a lot of attention. Ovechkin told Slava Malamud of Sport-Express that he thought Milbury didn’t like Russians — shades of Don Cherry! — and that (and this is my favorite line) “I can talk about his work as an Islanders general manager.” How do you say, “Oh, snap!” in Russian?
The fact is that for the most part, the Caps go as Ovechkin goes. That’s only natural. Ovechkin had a bad start to the season. New system, lots of games in not a lot of days, whatever — the truth is, he was playing in the same conditions as every other player in the league. When Milbury ranted his rants, the Caps were 7-11-1 with 15 points, not only at the bottom of the Southeast Division but at the bottom of the Eastern Conference as well. Now, the Caps are first in the Southeast Division, leading the once-hot Winnipeg Jets by two points.
“Right now I feel pretty good and again we win the games it’s most important thing,” Ovechkin said. “Of course I’m happy I score the goals. The beginning of the year was pretty hard time for all organization. Now we’re back on track, and it’s good.”
Winning the games is the most important thing, and winning the division is the Caps’ best path to the playoffs. That slow start still means that if you take away the Southeast title, the Caps’ point total still has them hovering around the cut-off point for the eighth spot.
What do they have going for them? Well, nine games remain, and thanks to that lengthy road trip in March, six are at Verizon Center, including the last three (one of those is against the Jets). And they have the old Ovechkin back, minus the stubble. When he’s on his game, he raises everyone else’s. That’s when money and the “C” on the chest matter not at all.
“I think that’s why we’ve been playing so good as a team,” rookie defenseman Steve Oleksy said after Sunday night’s win. “I think everybody feeds off that, and when we see him finding that next level, I think everybody in the room finds that next level.”
And if he falters? There will be a criticism sign-in sheet on the door of Verizon Center. If Caps fans take turns hurling invective, you can insult Ovechkin all the way to the Hart Trophy — and the Caps into what seemed, a short time ago, a most unlikely playoff berth.
For more by Tracee Hamilton, visit www.washingtonpost.com/hamilton.