Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), from Russia, celebrates with goalie Braden Holtby (70) after an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, in Washington. The Capitals won 4-0. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon
January 29, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) Abraham Lincoln returned to the Washington Capitals locker room, shortly after Alex Ovechkin returned to the top of the NHL's goal-scoring race.

In fact, they were one and the same.

The Capitals have a playful ritual of awarding a stovepipe hat and Lincoln-like beard to a standout player to don after every victory. Yes, it looks as goofy as it sounds.

The so-called ''Honest Abe Players' Player of the Game'' ceremony had been on hiatus for nearly two weeks, the victim of a four-game losing streak padded around the All-Star break. The most honest thing coming from the Capitals was coach Barry Trotz's unhappiness over blown leads and a suddenly porous defense.

The Capitals couldn't have found a better way to end the skid, a 4-0 win over Sidney Crosby and the rival Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night. Defensive discipline was back, and there was no sitting on the lead.

''We were just relying on our skill a little bit too much the last couple of games,'' forward Eric Fehr said.

No one expected smooth sailing from the get-go as the franchise adjusted to Trotz in his first season in D.C., but it's now 48 games into the 82-game season - time to start figuring out where the Capitals are headed. Up to now, they've been essentially a .500 team (25 wins, 23 losses) that relied heavily on goaltender Braden Holtby (franchise-record 27 consecutive games) and found maddening ways to give up standings points - as they did in recent losses to struggling Edmonton and Columbus.

Wednesday's win put the Capitals into sixth place in the Eastern Conference. That's hardly the most secure position, given they finished ninth a year ago - missing the playoffs by one spot.

''It's one of those things we seem to play well against really good teams,'' Holtby said. ''We have to find a way to make sure we play that way against everyone.''

For much of the last decade, the Capitals have never been short on talent - it's been intangibles such as leadership, chemistry and coaching that have kept the team from making a serious Stanley Cup run. Trotz has been emphasizing that the best players need to play like the best players.

Which means it comes back, as it always does, to Ovechkin, whose 51-goal campaign in 2013-14 was marred by a minus-35 plus-minus rating. This season Ovechkin is plus-12, and his pair of goals against the Penguins gave him 29, moving him ahead of Rick Nash and Tyler Seguin entering Thursday's games.

''When Alex is determined, the way he is lately, I think he just creates so much good offense,'' Trotz said. ''He's dangerous every night. You look at the stat sheet, whether he scores or not, he's got 10 shots. There's guys in the league who go a month without 10 shots sometimes.''

After a win, the player who was previously awarded the Lincoln garb has the honor of deciding who gets it next. Trotz said former winner Jason Chimera chose some insightful words when picking Ovechkin after the Penguins victory:

''Leaders lead. And he led today.''

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Follow Joseph White on Twitter: http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP

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