By Stu Hackel
What's wrong with Alex Ovechkin?
Ovie has been Novie more often than not lately. Last night in New Jersey was the fourth game in his last six in which he didn't register a point. Perhaps not coincidentally, three of those four games were on the road. Overall in those six games, he's produced a goal and two assists and is a minus-3.
Everyone has bad stretches, but stats aside, Ovechkin's characteristic passion and explosiveness are absent. What made the hockey world fall in love with Ovie was his all-energy, all-the -time performances, regardless of who he's playing against. Even his detractors would admit that he's hockey's most exciting player when he's on his game.
But when his team is flat, Ovechkin is the guy that coach Bruce Boudreau relies upon to re-inflate the Caps. Hasn't been happening lately.
Ovechkin wasn't the only Cap who had a sub-par outing last night, of course. When you lose 5-0 to a struggling team like the Devils, explanations/excuses are easy, starting with underestimating your opponent and its not-ready-for-prime-time goaltending. But that still doesn't explain this weak stretch for the Washington captain.
Ovechkin has slumped before, but not this early in the season. Sure, it could be an aberration. Or you can wonder if anyone, even Ovie, can maintain a headlong style year after year and not wear down. Ovechkin's goal production has shrunk from 65 in 2007-08 to 56 in 2008-09 to 50 last season, and he's now on pace to score fewer than 40.
Seasoned Caps watchers are perplexed. In his weekly ranking of Capitals yesterday -- before the Devils game -- J.P. of Jaspers' Rink had Ovie trending downward, writing, "We've come to expect more from the best player on the planet." After the game, Becca H. on Jaspers' Rink wondered if coach Bruce Boudreau might possibly make him a healthy scratch, although she admitted the odds of that "aren't great (although with every game, one has to think it becomes more of a possibility)." It sounds rash, but for some, that's what it's come to.
Boudreau will no doubt have more patience with Ovechkin. Scratching Ovie would embarrass him and may also anger him. NHL coaches who anger their best player risk losing that guy, the team and their job --two notables who spring to mind are Robbie Ftorek (who referred to Wayne Gretzky as just one of his 20 Kings) and Roger Neilson (who didn't want the Rangers to play Mark Messier's puck pursuit style). When John MacLean scratched Ilya Kovalchuk earlier this season, apparently for missing a team meeting, speculation began that the star and the coach were at odds and the coach's job was imperiled. Maybe there's a connection, maybe there's not, but Kovalchuk remains a huge non-factor for the Devils this season and MacLean's job is hardly secure.
Boudreau has always been Ovechkin's biggest booster and the Caps' play is molded to fit his strengths. Still, he's got to find some way to get Ovie's furnace burning again.
Skating Around: In The Globe and Mail, James Mirtle has crunched the numbers and shown there is more shot-blocking in the NHL this season and it has generally trended upward since the league began tracking the stat in 1997-98. He also noticed that scoring has been trending down, slowly, since the power-play-filled 2005-06 season, the first one after the lockout, and he attributes that in part to the rise in blocked shots.
Along with Mirtle's thought, consider that the post-lockout rules negated the effectiveness of neutral zone defenses in the NHL, so teams decided to make their stand defensively in their own zone. That's how blocking shots became a main weapon in contemporary hockey defensive schemes.
...which the referees waved off saying that Smyth made contact with the puck above the crossbar. The replay officials in Toronto didn't get a view that was definitive enough to overturn the decision on the ice and the Sens held on to win. It was a close call, and close calls frequently cause criticism of the replay system.
When the video replay system was instituted in 1991-92, the high stick call was originally not one of the reviewable situations precisely because TV cameras can't always provide the best angle. But it's obvious from those instances when it can afford a good view, replay on high stick calls was a worthwhile addition.
Farewell to a barn: Today at noon, the wrecking ball will come crashing down on the Philadelphia Spectrum, where the Flyers won their first Stanley Cup. Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent are expected to be in attendance as Comcast-Spectacor tries to turn the event into a block party. The demolition could cause a number of former NHL players to rejoice. With the home team's very hostile fans right on top of the action and the rugged Flyers feeding off their energy to make life difficult for opponents, innumerable cases of "The Philly Flu" plagued teams that visited the Spectrum. Plans to turn the site into a 350,000-square-foot restaurant/entertainment complex called "Philly Live!" have been scaled back to a 40,000-to 45,000-square-foot sports bar with memorabilia. Bricks from the building will go on sale for a mere $39.95 each (mounted on a wooden base). The perfect holiday gift for the little lady, no?