If you hadn't noticed, the Capitals' captain has been looking a whole lot like “Old Ovi” lately. March began with a vintage end-to-end rush that sank the Islanders in overtime, and with 14 points in 10 games, it was shaping up to be his best month since he notched 19 points in November.
Alas, I picked the wrong morning to fight traffic on I-66. Not only was Ovechkin absent when I arrived, the team announced that he's going to miss “somewhere in the neighborhood” of seven to 10 days with an undisclosed injury.
(In considering the severity of Ovechkin's injury, it should be noted that the Capitals' public estimates on recovery times aren't always accurate. Eric Fehr, for instance, was listed as day-to-day with a dislocated shoulder for 22 games. But I digress.)
Coach Bruce Bodureau referred Ovechkin's injury as a nagging problem that's afflicted his star winger for months, and Friday's game report shows that Ovechkin skated only 15 minutes 24 seconds against the Devils, his lowest ice time total since being ejected for boarding Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell a year ago.
No matter how much reporters prodded Boudreau after practice, Gabby wasn't giving up the goods.
“You guys are trying,” he chuckled, before dismissing the suggestion that it was caused by a knee-to-knee collision with Detroit's Darren Helm last Wednesday. “He's just sore.”
I'm told that Ovechkin's latest injury is “small” and not the same one that required a cortisone shot (believed to be injected into a wrist) in January, nor is it among the biggest reasons he's on pace for 32 goals, which, as you may have heard by now, is down from the nearly 54 he's averaged over his first five seasons.
“I don't want to make excuses for him, and Alex wouldn't make excuses for himself, but I don't know,” Boudreau said when asked if the current injury is the reason for the offensive dropoff. “It all could, or it may not -- depends on how you guys want to spin it.”
In January, I wrote that Ovechkin's decline in goals can be blamed on a trio of factors: The 25-year-old Russian was carrying around too much weight, his mind still was burdened by epic letdowns in the Olympics and 2010 playoffs and defensemen had figured him out.
Nothing I've heard Monday caused me to rethink any of that. So it did not surprise me in the least when I was told that the reason for Ovechkin's turnaround is twofold: He's finally rounded into top shape and he's pushed aside the disappointments and other distractions. He’s focused on the approaching postseason.
Ovechkin, indeed, appears lighter on his skates, as the goal against the Islanders and other bursts in subsequent games suggest. And the fact that he agreed to take a seat suggests he's considering the big picture.
“He wants to feel better,” Boudreau said Monday. “He doesn't like waking up every morning feeling that he's got to go through an hour of just doing stuff to get ready to practice or play. He wants to feel healthy. The playoffs are very important to him and he wants to be at his best when we arrive there.”
That said, there's another issue to consider. Players like to have some continuity as the playoffs approach, and Boudreau typically uses the final games of the regular season to cement his playoff lineup.
There are only nine games remaining, and if Ovechkin's layoff began Monday, it's possible he'll miss the next five contests. Jason Arnott, meantime, is sidelined with a groin muscle strain and could miss the next three games, if not more.
It creates a pair of enormous holes in the Top 6, and when Ovechkin and Arnott return, it will trigger a ripple effect throughout the forward lines.
It’s a potential complication, for sure, but given the Capitals’ nine-game winning streak, they can afford to let Ovechkin join Arnott in their crowded infirmary. They are going to make the playoffs. All that's really left to be decided is whether they'll be able to catch the Flyers – Tuesday's opponent – for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, or whether they’ll be able to hold off the Lightning for a fourth straight Southeast Division title. (Philadelphia has a two-point lead and two games in hand and Tampa Bay is five points in arrears.)
Banners are nice. But as we've seen the past three seasons, home ice advantage isn't all it's cracked up to be. The important thing for the Capitals right now is that their best player gets as close to one hundred percent as possible. If missing a week or two will accomplish that, so be it.