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Ovechkin's turn as setup man

Alex Ovechkin, left, with Karl Alzner, has more than twice as many assists (23) as goals this season, tying him for second in the NHL.
Alex Ovechkin, left, with Karl Alzner, has more than twice as many assists (23) as goals this season, tying him for second in the NHL. (Toni L. Sandys)
By Katie Carrera
Friday, December 3, 2010

In Wednesday night's 4-1 win in St. Louis, Alex Ovechkin recorded his 23rd assist of the season, tied for second in the league with Sidney Crosby and trailing only Henrik Sedin (27). That the Capitals' captain has racked up so many assists this season isn't, by itself, what has people surprised, but rather that he only has 10 goals in 26 games to go along with those helpers.

Ovechkin hasn't scored a goal since Nov. 14 against Atlanta, but he still has eight points in the past seven games in the form of assists. He's still ranked third in the league in scoring and on pace for a 100-plus point season, and if he continues at this rate, he could eclipse his previous season record of 59 assists from the 2009-10 campaign.

So is the surge in assists simply a reflection of Ovechkin's awareness that defenders are taking away his shots, leaving greater chances for players such as Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom? Or is the two-time Hart Trophy winner adding a new wrinkle to his game as he matures in the NHL? Probably a little bit of both.

"I think the teams are tougher on him this year, too; it's always two guys on him. I think that's why," Backstrom said. "He has good vision, he sees guys coming on him and he's passing away the puck instead of just [taking the shot]. I think that's the difference. We're trying to help him as much as we can out there, too."

Ovechkin concurred: "I think right now they put one guy in front of me, Backie, Sasha or Greenie. It doesn't matter where we are; one guy is always there. We just have to use it and go through the D and when there's one guy, two guys in front of you, make some space for different" teammates.

Players are expected to continue developing as their careers progress, and several of his contemporaries have found ways to elevate their game. This season may mark a visible transition that way in Ovechkin, who through his first five seasons in the NHL was often criticized for not passing to his teammates more.

"He's distributing" the puck, Brooks Laich said. "I think he's becoming a more complete player that way; he's using his techniques rather than just trying to force a shot all the time. It's worked out well and it's spread the offense out a little bit more."

Said Boudreau: "To me, he's becoming a better player. . . . Not too many players can [continue to adapt]. They say Sidney [Crosby] worked on his faceoffs and to get better on his shot. Alex has done the exact same thing. Stan Mikita went from being the most penalized player to winning the Lady Byng. Offhand, there's not a lot of guys that can change what they do."

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