Given the full-frontal assault on your senses for Game No. 566 on the 2010-11 schedule -- in some quarters, we believe this match is also referred to as the Winter Classic -- kindly try to move past The Price is Right, HBO's 24/7, Bruce Boudreau's barnyard eloquence, sportswriters posing as meteorologists, and various other breathless accompaniments to this hockey festival and riddle yourself this: What's wrong with Alexander Ovechkin?
Like a few extra minutes of sunshine a day, Washington's marquee star might be emerging at just the right time for the Capitals, who have pulled out of their eight-game death spiral by turning into a quasi-trapping team and winning four of their last five matches. After going eight games without a goal, Ovechkin has scored in his past two, neatly pouncing on the puck in the left circle against Carolina, and sliding one into an empty net in the waning moments against Montreal.
But the Capitals' engine is still idling at 14 goals in 39 games, a 30-or-so-goal pace that is absurdly below the standard set by a left winger who has averaged almost 54 in each of his first five NHL seasons and never scored fewer than 46. And he has scored only two power play goals after averaging more than 18 per season. They both came on Oct. 30.
Ovechkin's point shot had been the cudgel with which Washington pummeled its opponents, but it has turned limp, obliging Boudreau to move him from the blue line to the front of the net in a recent game in an attempt to shake the doldrums.
"I can't explain his year," general manager George McPhee says. "Whether it's Pavel Bure or (Jaromir) Jagr or Peter Bondra when we had him here, (offensive stars) get into a stretch when they're not scoring and their whole game seems to fall apart. They try to change their games, take shortcuts, maybe cheat a little bit, poach a little bit to get that goal. What they have to do is work a heckuva lot harder and then (goals) start coming."
"Watch (Ovechkin)," Boudreau tells On the Fly. "He falls more often. He misses the puck more often. Maybe he's trying too hard, I don't know. I see him diving for pucks, missing pucks. I don't know the reason behind that. I asked him if he had changed sticks a couple of times about a month ago. (Indeed Ovechkin tinkered with his stick on the Boston-Ottawa road trip earlier this month, using some leftover CCMs that he had at the Olympics. Those sticks had a slightly thinner blade rather the ones he employed post-Vancouver.) But I try to stay away from it. When the coach starts screwing around with a guy's personal equipment ... I didn't want that done to me when I was playing. Sometimes we're putting so many different thoughts in his head that we're screwing him up."
Of course, Capitals equipment manager Brock Myles shrugs off the impact of Ovechkin's stick in a craftsman-never-blames-his tools sort of way. "When it comes to sticks," Myles said, "you're making mountains out of molehills. He could use a (insert a Boudreau word here) garden hose and score six goals (in a game)."
So with the stick notion debunked, let's examine some other theories that may explain the Incredible Shrinking Ovie:
Theory No. 1:Ovechkin never has truly recovered from that 7-3 quarterfinal humiliation against Canada in the Olympic quarterfinals.
Ovechkin is the proudest of Russians, delightfully passionate about his homeland. Team Russia -- described by McPhee as poorly coached and poorly selected, an odd amalgam of NHL stars buttressed by KHL players of slim pedigree -- was exposed on the biggest world stage, and no one was more vulnerable than the player who had made an exceptional emotional investment.
GALLERY:The Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry
These kinds of experiences do leave scars. Consider that the goalie who will attempt to foil him in Game No. 566 on New Year's Day: Pittsburgh's Marc-André Fleury. His second-round playoff loss to Montreal, his hometown team, last spring seemed to shatter Fleury's confidence. The goalie's fog didn't finally lift until November. When Ovechkin returned from Vancouver, he scored eight goals for the Capitals in his final 18 games. Goals in his last 57 regular-season games: 22. (He did have five in seven playoff games against the Canadiens, but that first-round series didn't end well, either.)
"Possibly," Capitals veteran Mike Knuble replies when the Olympic theory is advanced. "There was a lot of pressure on him. He was carrying the torch for the whole country, trying to do anything and everything to help them win. And it didn't happen. Sure it bugged him. But he had the summer to get over it. You gotta move on."
Theory No. 2:In the playoffs, the Canadiens created a new template to combat Ovechkin.
This theory might have a whiff of legitimacy if he didn't have five goals and 10 points in the series, but here goes: Montreal's defense, especially Josh Gorges, closed the gap quickly, depriving him of room to maneuver. Coupled with back pressure from their forwards, Ovechkin had less time to weave his magic. When he tried to pull up and curl, he found all kinds of legs in the way as he attempted to get the puck to the net. When he tried to cut across the middle with speed, he was impeded by a back-checker.
Of course, the Canadiens didn't exactly invent the wheel here. In the 2008 playoffs, Philadelphia played it the same way with Kimmo Timonen in the role of Gorges. (Ovechkin had four goals and nine points in seven games against the Flyers.) Just as opponents now focus on Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos or New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk, Ovechkin has seen this before, even though he says, "Teams are playing different against me and our line, especially."
Theory No. 3:Ovechkin has been dragged down by the erratic play of his usual center, Nicklas Backstrom.
Don't buy it. Coming off 88 and 101 point-seasons, Backstrom, a dandy, is below a point-per-game pace. Of course, as part of a symbiotic relationship, his numbers have suffered because of Ovechkin's inability to finish. Still Ovechkin, a do-it-yourselfer, never has been overly dependent on his center. As a rookie, Ovechkin scored 52 goals while flanking Dainius Zubrus, whose deftness in dishing the puck never has been confused with Adam Oates'.
Theory No. 4:Ovechkin is feeling the weight of the captaincy.
McPhee suggests that Ovechkin "is trying to set the tone, and it's not happening for him," but the winger didn't seem to collapse under the burden when he first slapped on the C last Jan. 5. In 21 games prior to the Olympic break after being named captain, he had 16 goals, including one stretch of five games when he scored eight.
Theory No. 5: His two-game suspension for what the NHL called a "reckless" hit from behind on Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell last March somehow changed him.
Not to go all Dr. Phil on you, but this strikes On The Fly as getting warmer. Ovechkin asserts, "I don't think the suspension has affected me at all," but Boudreau is less sure.
"I think he changed the way he played after the suspension," Boudreau said. "Even last year. He was so worried about it, he didn't play with reckless abandon. He hated -- and I'm sure he still does -- the media being negative about him because he's not a dirty player. He tries not to be. He's just bigger and stronger than most people. But there was a definite change. He's very more careful."
So there you go. Five theories. Zero proof.
We sort of like Nos. 1 and 5, but you could sum up Ovechkin's woes as merely being a middling first half and you might be just as right. Stuff does happen.
"I dunno, maybe it's just a mental thing," Ovechkin says. "Sometimes you have so much pressure on your shoulders. This (scoring drought) happens to me every year. If I didn't have any (scoring) chances, then there'd be a problem. You say: 'What do I have to do now?' Maybe quit playing hockey."
And he smiles his gap-tooth smile.
"One two-goal game," Boudreau says, "and he'll be back to normal."