2011 Winter Classic: Capitals star Alex Ovechkin works on ending offensive slump

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 12:31 AM

PITTSBURGH - The Washington Capitals opened the new year in just about the best way imaginable. But the same can't be said for Alex Ovechkin, who came up empty on the score sheet, again.

The two-time MVP's failure to record a point in the Capitals' 3-1 Winter Classic victory, played before 68,111 at Heinz Field on prime-time television, isn't the only problem. Sidney Crosby, his bitter rival, didn't notch a point for the Pittsburgh Penguins, either. It's that for Ovechkin, offensive futility is becoming an all too common refrain.

The Capitals' captain is on pace for his worst offensive season since joining the NHL in 2005-06. His 14 goals in 40 games, in fact, are about 10 fewer than he normally has at the turn of the year, 18 behind Crosby and tied for 32nd in the league.

"The reason is, it's all about me," Ovechkin said. "I have a chance to score goals, I have to score it."

If only it were that simple.

There are many factors contributing to the 25-year-old's dramatic dip in goals, but the most obvious one is how opposing teams are going about shutting him down, and how little he's adjusted in response.

Ovechkin is being smothered like never before, particularly when he attempts to carry the puck into the offensive zone. Defensemen are brashly stepping up on him, while at the same time, one or more forwards are sneakily applying pressure from behind. As a result, when Ovechkin cuts from the outside to a more prime scoring area, opponents strip the puck from him.

"Yeah," Ovechkin acknowledged last week, asked if opposing forwards are applying more pressure than before. "If I have a puck, I have two guys around me all the time. And the third guy comes down behind me, slash me or do something like that."

Added veteran winger Mike Knuble, who has witnessed the ramped-up defensive tactics from just a few feet away: "Alex likes to get to the middle, on his forehand, and they're just not allowing him to go there."

The Capitals' coaching staff has implored Ovechkin to counteract the increased attention by carrying the puck to the outside and down the boards. That, presumably, would allow him easier entry into offensive zone and, just as important, make him less predictable.

From all appearances, though, Ovechkin has yet to embrace the advice.

In addition to dealing with backchecking forwards, Ovechkin has been encumbered by the more aggressive manner in which defensemen are contesting him. Blue-liners are playing much closer to him, which is giving him less space to get off his shot. They're also keeping their skates closer together and the blade of their stick perpendicular, which has cut off his trademark, between-the-opponent's-legs shot that has, in the past, sailed right past screened goaltenders.

"If anything," Knuble said, "I'll give this minor critique: he's trying to put his shots through the eye of the needle. You don't have to pick corners. His shot is hard enough that they'll go in."

Some point to the fact Ovechkin has yet to recover mentally from Russia's disappointment last February in the Vancouver Games, a pair of suspensions and the Capitals' first-round playoff collapse against Montreal. Others have said that Ovechkin, listed at 233 pounds, would be well served by shedding 10 or 15 pounds in an effort to improve his explosiveness. He was 212 pounds the day he was drafted in 2004.

It's possible all of that is contributing to his slump in some way, but Ovechkin's biggest hurdle remains the increased pressure he's facing to regain his familiar place among the league's goal leaders with 42 regular season games remaining.

He acknowledged on Friday that there's a problem and that he's searching for answers, which, of course, is the first step.

"We just have to find a way [to do] what we have to do," Ovechkin said, referring to his linemates. "We've talked to [Coach Bruce Boudreau], we've talked to [center Nicklas Backstrom]. It's something new for us because we never have this situation before.

"Again," he added, "time will move forward and we are going to find a way to play against this strategy."

When Kobe Bryant's perimeter game showed signs of slowing, the then three-time NBA champion retooled by refining his moves in the post two summers ago. The Los Angeles Lakers have won two championships since. When Crosby sensed he had become too one-dimensional following Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup victory in 2008-09, the Penguins captain dedicated an entire summer to honing his shot so that he could score from anywhere on the ice. This season, he notched a point in 25 straight games before an overtime loss to the New York Islanders last week.

Now, it's time for Ovechkin to adjust. The great ones always do.

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