By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 22, 2010; D01
TAMPA -- With three weeks remaining in the regular season, Alex Ovechkin is making a strong push to join Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky as the only players to claim the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP three consecutive seasons.
"I don't know," the Washington Capitals captain said playfully when asked where this season ranks in his career, "you have to tell me."
Ovechkin's numbers speak for themselves. Through Saturday's games, he led the league in points (97) and plus-minus rating (plus-42) and was tied with Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby for the most goals (45). He also was tops in points per game average (1.56), which would be the best since Mario Lemieux averaged 1.77 during the 2000-01 season (in 43 games).
What makes Ovechkin's statistics all the more remarkable is that he has missed 10 games -- six because of injury and four because of suspension -- and was forced out of four others because of injury or ejection, twice in the first period. (In his previous four seasons, the 24-year-old Russian missed only four games total.)
Still, he remains on pace to match his career high for points, 112, and a set a career high for assists with 60.
"If I was not hurt, if I was not suspended, I would probably have more points," Ovechkin said.
He also has been more efficient and disciplined than last season. Ovechkin is playing a minute less per game on average and has taken only 18 minor penalties, down from the 35 he committed in 2008-09.
"I think he deserves [the MVP] this year more than any other year," General Manager George McPhee said. "He continues to improve. He knows when to do things now. He still gets special attention every time he's on the ice. Teams build their entire game plan around him, and he still produces. It's remarkable."
Seven players have been named MVP three or more times, but only Orr (1970-72) and Gretzky (eight in a row from 1980 to '87) have won three consecutively.
The MVP is selected by the members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, and ballots must be submitted prior to the opening game of the playoffs. This season, there are plenty of candidates, including Crosby, Buffalo's Ryan Miller and Vancouver's Henrik Sedin, among others.
None of those players, though, has faced NHL discipline or been subject of controversy, which at times, has threatened to define Ovechkin's fifth season.
"I hope people appreciate the fact that what makes Alex great is also going to bite him from time to time," McPhee said. "If you really understand this game, then you understand that he throws 300 great hits a year, but a couple are going to go wrong."
Other factors that could hurt Ovechkin's chances include his deep supporting cast, the Capitals' 7-2-1 record without him and the fact that they would lead the NHL in goals even if his 45 were subtracted.
"When he is out of the lineup, they play so much harder because they know they can't rely on big brother," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I wouldn't want to go without him for 25 games."
Boudreau, a noted stat geek, said Ovechkin's plus-minus rating impresses him most. It's 34 better than last season and 14 better than his career high, set in 2007-08. This season, he has been on the ice for 36 goals against compared with 82 last season and 67 two seasons ago.
"It means I can put him out in any situation and not be afraid," Boudreau said. "You would be surprised how much pride hockey players take in plus-minus. Every hockey player will fight for points, but they feel good when they're a plus player. It means they are responsible."
There is also evidence that Ovechkin has provided something that's difficult to measure. Since Boudreau named Ovechkin captain Jan. 5, the Capitals have gone 24-3-4, surging to the top of the NHL standings and to an almost insurmountable lead in the Eastern Conference.
"This is his best overall season," Boudreau said. "Every number is great. And just look at where our team is in the standings. That has a lot to do with him."