On Feb. 23, when Alex Ovechkin broke out for his first multi-goal game of the season with a hat trick against the New Jersey Devils , the hope was that it would mark the beginning of a more consistent offensive output for the Washington Capitals ’ star winger.
So far, that hasn’t been the case. In the three games since the outburst, Ovechkin has recorded a pair of assists but his play has been inconsistent, and his season continues to be an up-and-down learning process.
“Of course my job to score goals and I have to put it [in] every time I have a chance, but sometimes maybe not concentrate, maybe a little off,” Ovechkin said Monday when asked about his recent play. “But I just have to be more involved.”
In the Capitals’ 3-0 win over Carolina on Feb. 26, he had a secondary assist but didn’t record a shot on goal and was essentially a non-factor. Despite six shots on goal in a 4-1 loss at Philadelphia the next day, he was equally unremarkable.
The Russian winger’s invisibility against the Flyers drew harsh criticism from NBC analyst Mike Milbury. The former NHL general manager took aim at Ovechkin’s effort, careless offensive-zone passes, embellishment of a high stick and lack of commitment along the boards and in the defensive zone.
“When you have great talent, it comes with great expectations and accountability,” Milbury said during the second intermission. “This is an awful display of hockey by Alex Ovechkin. He should be ashamed of himself. A blind pass? Eight-year-olds don’t do this in the offensive zone.”
Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets, Ovechkin was on the ice for two of the Capitals’ three goals, and he directly aided in Mike Ribeiro’s third-period tally. Even in that game, though, he could have taken better advantage of his opportunities, Coach Adam Oates said.
“He could have had more [touches], no question. There’s always more available, and I want to let him know that he has to contribute to that,” Oates said. “He’s got to be a part of that, and there’s five guys on the ice. He’s got to earn his keep too.”
How exactly? “By being in better position,” Oates said.
Ovechkin said Monday that he feels like he isn’t getting control of the puck enough in the neutral zone and that he’s talked with Ribeiro, his center for the past 13 games, about sending him the puck more when he’s in full flight up ice.
“When I have speed, that’s when I want it,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t want to have speed and stop on the blue line, and then slowly go to offensive zone and then [lose] the puck and then go back. It’s kind of position you going to be struggling all the time. If I’m going to have that kind of position [with] puck in neutral zone and I can make a move, we’ll [get] puck deep and find it that way and I’m going to feel much better.”
But within this style of play, Ovechkin isn’t always going to be the one lugging the puck up ice and into the offensive zone. To make the most of his opportunities in this system, he needs to work with his linemates rather than try to be independent of the larger team mechanism.
Oates said that part of his conversation with the 27-year-old captain Monday morning focused on his play and puck control in the neutral zone and making better use of his touches. Among the things they discussed was timing; Oates said he’s “trying to teach [Ovechkin] to wait for it a little longer at times” before looking to blast up into the offensive zone.
Ribeiro said that while he’s seen plenty of improvement in Ovechkin’s play during the time they’ve skated together on the top line, he notices his teammate still grappling with having less control of the puck and having to pursue it rather than simply receive it.
It’s an adjustment that Ovechkin needs to make, Ribeiro said, because he can be just as intimidating of an offensive force if he’s barreling into the offensive zone searching for the puck as when he’s carrying it.
“Obviously for a guy who likes to have the puck a lot and shoot a lot of times, you don’t want to go get the puck a lot of times, you want the puck to come to you,” Ribeiro said.
“If I don’t have the puck coming out of my zone it’s hard to give it to him. If it’s chipped, a lot of times he has to be the guy to chase that puck,” he added. “He needs to get used to that . . . We saw areas [against the] Devils, he had two, three breakaways because of it. That’s something he has to adjust to.”
Capitals note: Washington signed defenseman Steven Oleksy to a three-year, two-way contract and recalled him from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Boston Bruins. It was not immediately known what roster move the Capitals would make to create a spot for Oleksy, 27, who leads the Bears with 151 penalty minutes.