By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
NEWARK -- The NHL's most electrifying player is set to make his anticipated return in a most fitting place: under Broadway's bright lights.
Alex Ovechkin wore his familiar red jersey during practice Monday morning, the surest sign yet that the two-time MVP, who is tied for the league lead in goals with 14, is ready to return to the Washington Capitals' lineup after being sidelined for six games.
"As of today he is," Boudreau said when asked if Ovechkin would play Tuesday at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. "I think he's fine. "He practiced today [so] there's a good probability of it happening."
Ovechkin was similarly noncommittal when asked about his playing status, saying: "I feel pretty good, excited. Again, we'll see how I feel tomorrow."
Asked if he felt 100 percent from the left shoulder strain he suffered on Nov. 1, Ovechkin said, "Probably 100 percent."
The Capitals, though, spent an hourlong practice at Prudential Center preparing as though Ovechkin will be in the lineup as they attempt to bounce back from their worst defeat of the season, a 5-2 loss to New Jersey on Saturday night.
They scored twice on consecutive shifts in the first period, then were shut out over the final 54 minutes 58 seconds by the defensively responsible and disciplined Devils. The defeat was a departure from the previous four games, consecutive victories in which 11 different players combined to score 18 goals and carry the Capitals in Ovechkin's absence.
Boudreau hopes getting Ovechkin back from the longest layoff in his four-plus seasons doesn't change his team's pack mentality.
"I hope the feeling is not, okay, 'Alex is in the lineup, let's let him do it,' " Boudreau said.
Veteran center Brendan Morrison added: "It's such an easy thing to do when you have the top goal-scorer in the lineup [and] to defer [to him]. Or you have the mentality that, 'If I don't get one tonight, he's going to get one for us.' But you have to have the mind-set [of] 'I have to go out and contribute, and if he gets his, too, we're in even better shape.' "
Ovechkin's expected return prompted Boudreau to make changes to his forward combinations and adjust the alignment of his power play. The top line was comprised of Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom and right wing Chris Clark, who had consecutive career-best seasons in 2005-06 and 2006-07 but has played with Ovechkin only sparingly since.
"When you get an opportunity like this, you have to make the most of it." said Clark, who has one goal and seven points this season while skating mostly on the third and fourth lines. "If the line doesn't play well, it could change in the middle of the game."
Boudreau said he put Clark on the top line because his rugged style of play most resembles Mike Knuble's. Knuble is out three to four weeks with a broken finger.
"Believe me when I say I went through a whole pad of paper doing this stuff," Boudreau said of shuffling the lines. "It might all last a shift, or it might last a year."
Boudreau also tinkered with the power play, which went 6 for 14 minus Ovechkin and vaulted to sixth in the league with a 24.4-percent effectiveness rate.
Although Ovechkin has played on the point for most of Boudreau's tenure in Washington, on Monday he was placed in the slot. The points were manned by Mike Green and Morrison, who is more conservative than Ovechkin, and therefore less likely to surrender a shorthanded opportunity.
Morrison "is a little safer," Boudreau conceded.
"We've given up some blatant chances," he added. "It's more that really I liked the way that Mo was playing back there than it was I didn't like the way Alex was playing. Alex led the league in points on the power play last year and had 19 goals."
Ovechkin said he was not bothered by the move, which puts him closer to the net but might mean he'll get off fewer shots.
"I don't care," he said. "If the team needs [me] to be down low, I'm going to be down low. I'm going to try like Mike Knuble play, the way he uses his body in front of the goalie. I'm just going to do that same."
No matter where Ovechkin plays, his effect will be felt -- in the Capitals' locker room, on the ice and in the packed stands at Madison Square Garden.
"He brings so much energy and excitement, not only to our team but the building," Morrison said. "Let's be serious: People come out to see Ovie. Every time he touches the puck, they expect to see something spectacular. It's an energy in the building and most times he delivers."
Boudreau added: "The crowd is abuzz, in all likelihood, because he might be playing. You can feel it because he's an exciting player. It's like Michael Jordan in the shootaround before the game, when you're saying, 'Oh man, look at Michael making all those shots.' He's an exciting athlete and entertainer."
Capitals Notes: Ovechkin has a goal and an assist in the two games in which he's previously returned from injury. Center Boyd Gordon, who left Saturday's game after aggravating a lingering back injury, will not play. Neither will defenseman Milan Jurcina, who has sat out the past two contests with a pulled leg muscle. . . . Center David Steckel left Monday's practice after taking a slap shot off the foot. His status against the Rangers has not yet been determined.