Alexander the . . . Greater?

Alex Ovechkin
In his last six games, Alex Ovechkin has racked up five goals, 15 points and 42 shots on goal. (George Widman - Associated Press)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Most conversations with NHL insiders about Alex Ovechkin end with some variation of the following: ". . . and he's only going to get better."

Lately, the Washington Capitals winger has been doing exactly that.

Those who watch Ovechkin closely agree there's been an uptick in his play the past two weeks, noting more vigor in his skating stride, greater ferocity in his hits and increased determination in the defensive zone.

"He's all over the place," captain Chris Clark said after yesterday's practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "He's not just hitting guys, he's running over guys. If he's not shooting the puck on net, he's driving to the net. He's making something happen on every shift."

Clark paused then added, "He's just more involved."

It's impossible to ignore that Ovechkin's surge has coincided with that of the Capitals, who have won three of four entering tonight's meeting with the struggling Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center.

Ironically, the first signs of Ovechkin's breakout became apparent on a night he would rather forget -- Dec. 2 against Buffalo. In the first period, he stole the puck from Maxim Afinogenov in the defensive end, raced the length of the rink and scored an unassisted goal. But he was later ejected for hitting Sabres captain Daniel Briere from behind.

It could be argued that Ovechkin has been better than ever in the six games since. During that span, the 21-year-old has racked up 5 goals, 15 points and 42 shots on goal, bringing his season totals to 22 goals (tied for the league lead through Sunday's contests), 43 points (tied for third) and 175 shots (first).

But numbers don't tell the whole story.

On Friday in Atlanta, Ovechkin scored his second goal of the game with 31 seconds remaining in regulation and a third six seconds into overtime to clinch a 3-2 victory over the rival Thrashers. The following night, he knocked Philadelphia captain Peter Forsberg out of the game with a vicious but clean hit in open ice, then chipped in with a goal and two assists in the Capitals' 4-1 win.

Reasons for Ovechkin's rapid ascension vary.

"Maybe I'm in a good shape," said Ovechkin, referring to his offseason workout regimen, which included barely any on-ice training last summer. "I tried something different. [But] I am just comfortable right now."

General Manager George McPhee believes it's as much mental as physical.

"The tougher the games get, the better he is," McPhee said. "As the league seems to ratchet up every 20 games and gets better, he gets better with it. The more intense the games get, he matches it. The best players do that."

Coach Glen Hanlon sees a player who is more confident and determined.

"I'm in total agreement that his play has improved," Hanlon said. "Perhaps he's like the rest of our group and there's some confidence individually. He's a determined guy. Sometimes with Ovie it's channeling that determination the proper way. When it's channeled the proper way, he's obviously hard to stop."

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