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ON HOCKEY

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

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The Capitals Alex Ovechkin weighs in on his team's struggles and strategy.

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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.

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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.


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