Upon beating a longtime goaltending nemesis, Alex Ovechkin skipped forward from his signature spot on the ice, dropped to one knee, then pumped his fist before roaring. This is the image of Ovechkin so often freeze-framed, a screaming hulk of a man in the middle of his vintage goal-scoring celebration.
The power-play goal against New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was later credited to Justin Williams because closer inspection showed Ovechkin’s shot clipped Williams’s leg en route to the net. In a season that will already go down as one of Ovechkin’s least successful in goal production, one goal won’t matter much. What’s more significant for the Washington Capitals is that their captain is flashing his old form, playing his best hockey of the year with the playoffs a week away.
“Offensively, it’s probably not one of his better seasons,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s had a lot better seasons in terms of production, there’s no question. The numbers will show that. He had a slow start for me. He might have had points early and what have you, but for me, he never really got going until halfway through the year, playing better and skating better.
“Now, you could see his game sort of ramping up. He has a big effect on games. When he plays with that fierce edge where he’s coming after you and he’s in sort of that hunter mode. He’s hunting you down and he’s got that look and he can affect games in a big way. I think he’s more prepared for that now.”
After scoring 50 goals in 79 games last season, Ovechkin currently has 33 goals in 80 games. He’s tallied more assists, so he’s projected to finish with roughly the same points total as he did a season ago, but the only time he’s scored fewer goals in a full, 82-game season was in 2010-11, when he had 32.
Some of that decrease in goal production is an adjustment to reduced minutes; Ovechkin’s ice time has been down roughly two minutes per game this season (18:23) as a way to enable him to feel fresher in the playoffs. That change, going from consistently playing 20 minutes a game to less than 16 some nights, got Ovechkin out of rhythm initially. But it’s also helped him to be his most productive self when Washington needs it most. Ovechkin’s averaged a career-low 0.41 goals per game this season, but in the past 12 games, he has six goals and six assists, rounding into the point-per-game pace he’s displayed in the playoffs throughout his career.
It’s not just the uptick in scoring that has stood out. After the Capitals’ 4-1 win in Toronto on Tuesday night, several players referenced Ovechkin setting the tone of the game with a big hit on his first shift and Trotz said he’s noticed Ovechkin playing a more physical style lately.
“I try to do my best to be in a good shape before the playoffs because right there it’s most important time for me and for this group to show up and play our best hockey,” Ovechkin said.
“He’s stepping it up at the right time,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “It’s good. [Against the Rangers], he was shooting the puck better, really well. You knew one of those sooner or later was going to go in when he’s shooting like that. That gives confidence to our group. When you see the puck come off his stick, you know he’s going to get you one or two. And he’s playing physical and contributing in more ways than one.”
Ovechkin’s shot rate has been down this season at just 3.81 per game. But in the 18 games in March, Ovechkin averaged more than four. After a season Ovechkin himself has described as “down and up,” the Capitals don’t need to delve into the metrics to know Ovechkin is trending up. It’s obvious.
“Of course you can see it,” forward Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “Maybe somewhere middle of the season things not going well, it’s just normal. You can see every night, he put maximum effort. He’s just a little unlucky sometimes. You can see how he’s playing right now, very well, and it’s always fun to watch him.”