A maturing Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are ready for a serious run
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 6:59 PM
For the first time in his five-year career, Alex Ovechkin opens the season Friday in Atlanta as Washington's captain. Attaching a letter to his jersey this past January was only a formal confirmation of what has long been true: The Capitals, for better or worse, are Alex Ovechkin's team, and regardless of how many individual awards he earns or scoring milestones he captures, his lasting reputation will be tethered to the group's success.
"If the team fails, the perception is he fails," TSN analyst and former NHL all-star Ray Ferraro said. "He can score 75 goals this year and if the team loses in the first round, it will be tied to him; it doesn't matter if the reason they lose has nothing to do with him. As the team does well, people will look at him in a different light."
After the most disappointing year of Ovechkin's career, which, paradoxically, was his best statistically, the way he proceeds will weigh significantly on how Washington as a team takes the next step in its development as a Stanley Cup contender.
This time last fall, the Capitals spoke about the urgency to win and the belief that it was their year to win a championship. Now, after two straight premature playoff exits, they discuss their drive to work and maintain consistency. While it might not be surprising if the Capitals advance further into the playoffs this spring, they must first show that they can.
"I think it's better in the locker room, we're more focused," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "We're going to work at staying the same way all season and that's very important, I think, later when you go into the playoffs. . . . We have to be ready all the time. That's something we didn't do last year or years before. We have to learn and hope we can learn [that] this year. "
Ovechkin, 25, has captured two Hart Trophies as the league's most valuable player, been named most outstanding player by the NHL Players Association for three consecutive years, led the league in scoring once and in goals twice and posted four 50-goal seasons. But all of those accomplishments only bolstered the expectation that he would help the Capitals deliver, sooner rather than later.
In 2009-10, when it appeared he and the Capitals were poised to take the next step in development, Ovechkin instead experienced myriad team setbacks.
At the Vancouver Olympics, Russia was eliminated prior to the medal round after a blowout 7-3 loss to Canada. At the world championships, Russia lost in the final, ending a 27-game winning streak in the tournament.
During the Capitals' Presidents' Trophy-winning season, Ovechkin was suspended twice and had the fundamentals of his aggressive style challenged after a pair of injury-causing hits to Carolina's Tim Gleason and Chicago's Brian Campbell. But perhaps nothing was more disheartening to him than the Capitals' first-round collapse in the Stanley Cup playoffs after taking a three-games-to-one lead against the Montreal Canadiens.
"I think it was just everything," Ovechkin said, turning solemn when asked what event was the hardest to move past. "Olympics, playoffs, everything. When you lose, you feel bad for yourself, your team. I have to forget about it and move forward."
Ovechkin maintains that the Capitals must put last season's abrupt ending behind them, but he has still considered the reasons behind the early exit. He has discussed the team's need for a new mentality after the regular season -- how the Capitals cannot simply "expect to beat everybody." But he stops short of any such notion that the Capitals, with their prolific offense, should change their fundamental approach to hockey or to winning.
He does not intend to alter his style of play from the unique whirling dervish of speed, skill and brute force that has made him a player unlike any of his peers, and he wants his team to do the same. "We just have to be who we are," he said.