By Mike Wise
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 11:57 PM
After being dispatched to Verizon Center on Sunday to find out whether Alex Ovechkin is a coasting-through-the-regular-season diva, all but washed up as the most breathtaking player in his sport at 25, something happened:
In the middle of The Slump That's Stumped the NHL, an actual hockey game broke out.
Featuring a real, live, third-period comeback.
Two goals within 45 scintillating seconds that rocked an inferior team's confidence and sent the arena into delirium with applause, just like last year.
And a 24/7-quality speech between the second and third periods from Bruce Boudreau that was so rousing, "In the middle of it, I started to think, this sounds like the one I used on HBO; I just hoped the players didn't remember," the Caps' coach said afterward.
Okay, Ovie never scored against Ottawa, leaving him stuck on a measly 15 goals through 46 games and still trailing the not-quite-legendary Atlanta defenseman Dustin Byfuglien by one score.
But some guy called "Brooksie" got off the schneid.
Another affectionately called "Carly" one-timed a power-play rocket from a good 30 or so feet.
Heck, even "Chimmer" pushed home a banker for insurance.
The point is, barring a hidden injury, does what's wrong with Ovie in mid-January really matter if other things are right with the Caps?
Focusing on Ovechkin's inability to get the puck in the net almost overshadows Washington's genuine problem as the Feb. 28 NHL trading deadline looms:
Do they move Alexander Semin, he of the heavenly skill and hellish consistency, for a decent, second-line center to stay with the get-tougher-for-the-playoffs theme currently being espoused by General Manager George McPhee and Boudreau?
Or do they give Mr. Mercurial one more postseason to see if Semin can deliver on all that promise before he leaves this franchise and fan base in a maddening state of inconsistency?
And what of Nicklas Backstrom's goal funk? Or whether or not this new, muck-up-the-neutral-zone defense that worked so well for New Jersey during its Stanley Cup runs and an unheralded Montreal team that stunned the Capitals last year is taking away from that high-powered offense for which Boudreau's teams have come to be known?
It seems Ovechkin's drought - and with only five goals on 132 shots in his last 28 games, it is indeed a drought - has obscured bigger concerns because a two-time Hart Trophy winner has yet to record one hat trick this season.
Bottom line, hockey is one of the few sports in which the best player on the ice often doesn't have an ultra-productive night - and his team still wins.
Coming into Sunday, Ovechkin averaged 21 minutes 34 seconds per night, which means he's on the ice a little over one-third of the time.
LeBron James, who rivals Ovie as the most dynamic team-sport player in North America, has played 38 of 48 minutes in 40 games for the Miami Heat this season.
LeBron can not only control a game better because he has the ball in his hands for many more minutes than Ovechkin has the puck on his stick; a basketball player can go coast-to-coast much easier.
No one wants to end this goal funk more than Ovie. But other than the times it's clearly cost the Capitals a victory, it might not be the worst thing to have this happen at midseason.
It says here one of the Caps' main problems the past few years is watching Ovechkin weave through five bad guys as if they were traffic cones. He almost trusted himself too much with the puck, and the result was many of his gifted teammates turning into creasemen hoping for a rebound in front of the net.
If his teammates can play tic-tac-toe a few shifts, they are only going to get better as a team. Besides, it's not like Ovechkin isn't trying.
"The most important thing for me and the organization now is not to be MVP and scoring leader," Ovechkin said outside the Caps' locker room about 30 minutes after the Ottawa game. "It's for me to help bring the championship to Washington.
"My numbers are not that good and it's surprising to me. But I don't know what else to do but keep shooting. The puck simply don't go in right now. It's a long season. If I keep playing hard, it will. I know."
Asked to dignify even the more provocative reasons theorized for scoring fewer than one goal every three games this year - poor fitness, devoting too much attention to non-hockey matters, predictable style of play, toning down his big-hit aggression - Ovechkin bristles at the criticism.
"It's people looking, trying to find something," he said. "What I want to say to them is: 'Don't say that. Instead of watching me all the time for what is wrong with me, maybe you need to watch yourself.' "
Or watch the Capitals and see what they can do Tuesday night, when they take on the Eastern Conference-leading Flyers in Philadelphia. They head there having snapped a three-game losing streak, after another of Boudreau's almost-original intermission urgings.
"I told them I hope they realize how important this [third] period is to our season," Gabby said. "It's vital mentally, to get a couple goals for themselves."
Asked later to expound on why he chose another Ottawa game to break out that thought (the Caps also snapped an eight-game skid against the Senators after an eerily similar speech by Boudreau during the "24/7" series on HBO), he said, "Well, one, we played so many home games and to go on the road winless at home recently is a tough thing to do, that's why I thought it was an important period for our season.
"Maybe they didn't think that way, but I do. And two, I thought that even if we didn't win, we had to score some goals and get some confidence on offense. That stuff matters when you go out on the road."
And, okay, he plagiarized himself from cable TV just a bit.
But who cares? They won, the building went wild and Alex Ovechkin, the best 15-goal scorer in NHL history at this point in the season, might just be warming up to surpass the goal outputs of every remaining NHL defenseman.
In mid-January, a good three months before the real season starts, it's all about altering the perspective.