On Hockey: Alex Ovechkin shows flashes of his old self, but Capitals need him back for good

December 21, 2011

Alex Ovechkin reminded us Tuesday night of the impact he’s still capable of making in a game.

He sparked the Verizon Center crowd — and put the Nashville Predators on notice — with a variety of crushing hits in the opening minutes.

He fired shots from all angles, a game-high seven in all.

Most important, the Washington Capitals’ captain scored the type of goal that made all the morning highlight shows, the type Washington fans had grown used to seeing regularly but now find themselves craving.

For one night, at least, Old Ovi was in the house. And, predictably, his teammates followed his lead.

They always do.

“When he’s getting scoring chances, hitting, bringing that energy, it fires everybody else up,” defenseman Karl Alzner said after a 4-1 victory, perhaps the Capitals’ most thorough of the Dale Hunter era. “He’s the most exciting guy in the league.

“When,” Alzner added after a pause, “he’s on his game.”

And there’s the rub.

Ovechkin has only been “on his game” a handful of times this season. So few, in fact, it would be wise not to let one good performance fool you.

We also believed Ovechkin might have returned after his memorable goal at Ottawa two weeks ago. You remember, don’t you? The one that began with Ovechkin circling the Senators’ cage and ending with defenseman Erik Karlsson eating ice shavings.

As it turned out, that was just a cameo.

So we’re going to wait a game — or three — before making any optimistic proclamations. Ovechkin has been so inconsistent, in fact, some have begun to wonder if the days of No. 8 carrying the Capitals are in the past. And if so, how will the 13-year, $124 million contract extension he signed in 2008 affect the Capitals?

He’s only 26, true, but his second-line-winger-like numbers over the past year and a half don’t offer a strong rebuttal.

Ovechkin’s goal against the Predators was only his 11th in 32 games.

Through Tuesday’s slate, that put the two-time Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner on pace for 28 goals this season, tied for second with grinder Jason Chimera on his own team and knotted with 25 others for 42nd in the league.

Just as troubling is the fact that Ovechkin is on pace for a career-low 318 shots on goal, 49 fewer than he took last season and 210 fewer than he launched in 2008-09. Once the perennial league leader in that category, Ovechkin’s 124 shots are tied for fourth most and 12 off the lead.

“Good question,” he said when asked why hasn’t been shooting more. “That’s probably one of the things that hurts my stats.”

Something Ovechkin no longer questions, however, is the fact that he’s a marked man. As recently as a month ago, he often dismissed such talk, placing the onus on effort level rather than tactics.

But now he seems more receptive to what his coaches have implored him to do for more than a year.

“I talk to guys from different teams,” Ovechkin said Monday. “In meetings, they show video of what I did. So, of course, they know what I’m going to do exactly, in a certain time.”

The most obvious adjustment has been Ovechkin’s plan of attack, particularly when carrying the puck into the offensive zone.

Instead of cutting to the middle at the top of the left circle time and again, he’s also been luring defensemen low into the circle before cutting hard to the crease in recent games.

“You try lots of different things,” he said. “You switch wings. Maybe make a move [down low]. . . . That’s creativity. I’m learning and trying to do better.”

Tuesday’s performance was one of those games that make you really want to believe him.

On his second shift, Ovechkin, still one of the game’s most feared and prolific hitters, steamrolled Nick Spaling, then laid a pair of crushing checks on Colin Wilson.

Two shifts later, a roar rippled through the capacity crowd as he plucked the puck off the boards, used a linesman as a pick and then used his afterburners to turn around defenseman Jonathon Blum in the circle.

Once around Blum, Ovechkin made a beeline for Nashville’s net. Backup goalie Anders Lindback didn’t have a prayer.

“We were like, ‘Oh, yeah, Ovi’s getting it done tonight,’ ” Alzner said, smiling. “He’s that guy for us.”

Ovechkin has three goals in his past six games. He had three goals in 15 games before this small surge.

About 30 minutes after Tuesday’s win, owner Ted Leonsis made a brief appearance in the home dressing room on his way to the parking garage.

“We’re more concerned with how the team does than individuals,” he said, asked to contrast Ovechkin’s struggles with that night’s vintage performance. “I thought we got good goaltending and the big save when it counted. We scored on the power play and the core players, Alex, Nick [Backstrom] and Alex [Semin] all scored. Usually when that happens, we’re a really, really good team.”

“Alex had some space tonight,” he added.

Asked how concerned he is about Ovechkin’s second straight slow start, Leonsis said, “He’ll work his way through it.”

You confident about that, Ted?

“Yeah,” he said. “He’s in shape, he’s healthy and he’s in a good place.”

Ovechkin has 50 regular season games to prove it.

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