Wednesday, March 14, 2012
And chances were, Ovechkin would score off a one-man rush or a one-timer from the left-wing faceoff circle as much as not. He was the go-to guy on the play, the one you expected to be the finisher.
Fast forward to last night. The Caps are losing to the New York Islanders, 4-1, late in the second period. As the clock ticked under a minute to play in the period, the Caps were moving up ice, Ovechkin one of a group of skaters that included Jeff Schultz, Dennis Wideman, Marcus Johansson, and Brooks Laich. Ovechkin had already touched the puck briefly on the play, moving it across ice to Johansson leaving the Caps’ defensive zone. For the next few seconds it was the Johansson-Laich show, with Johansson skating down the left wing into the Islanders’ zone and sliding the puck to Laich skating down the middle. Ovechkin was more or less the odd wing out on the play, cutting across in front of Laich as the pass was coming through and filling a lane on the left side.
Laich took the shot from the high slot, and Islander goalie Evgeni Nabokov had to make a difficult save. But in having to make that difficult save, Nabokov could not control the rebound, and the puck slid to his right… right onto the tape of the odd wing filling his lane – Ovechkin. From momentum alone, Ovechkin was in a position to sweep the puck past the now out of position Nabokov to bring the Caps within two goals as the second period ended. The play was not designed for him, and in fact was not a first option for Johansson making his pass once inside the Islanders’ blue line. It was opportunism as a product of persistence – finishing his role in the play – that resulted in a goal.
Move forward to the third period. The Caps have closed the gap to one goal and are breaking into the Islander zone as the period was just winding down past the midway point. Joel Ward has trouble controlling the puck, but manages to wiggle it into the Islanders' zone as part of a three-man attack. From the right wing, Ward slid the puck to center Keith Aucoin skating down the middle. With only two Islanders back, Ovechkin is the open wing on the left side. Aucoin slides him the puck, and Ovechkin fires. Not once, and not again after defenseman Steve Staios slid himself out of the play trying to block the first shot. It is the third time – a chip shot just past Nabokov’s right shoulder, not a wicked wrister or a one-time slap shot – that gently settles in the back of the net. It is another example of persistence, of staying with a play enough to get those two extra whacks at the puck.
On neither play did Ovechkin carry the puck while outside the offensive zone. Only once did he touch it at that distance – to start Marcus Johansson on a rush on the other side of the ice that ended with Ovechkin scoring the Caps' second goal of the game. But by being persistent and opportunistic, without the expenditure of energy characteristic of so many of those goals in that 65-goal season, Ovechkin was the finisher on the goal that gave the Caps a breath of life after being down three goals and the one that brought them the rest of the way back from that deficit.
After being his own SportsCenter Top Ten highlight film for much of his first five seasons (in which he scored at a pace of 56 goals-per-82 games), he is having to become a different kind of player. He isn’t as successful off those one-man rushes or those one-timers as he once was. Teams have figured that out. And all that energy used can take its toll on a player.
On two occasions last night there was a player who perhaps used the experience gained as he closes in on 600 games played in the NHL (regular season and playoffs). He wasn’t the highlight reel for five seconds moving up the ice and pulling fans out of their seats that he was four seasons ago. He was the guy who bided his time as his teammates made a play, and he was there for the finish. Not the prettiest goals you will see – both scored on the doorstep by being the last guy on the play – but they count all the same. And for a team needing goal scoring, that is what the Caps are going to need from Ovechkin as the days get longer this spring.
The Alex Ovechkin that fans saw in his first five seasons is gone. It might not be a case of “what’s wrong” with Alex Ovechkin since then as much as it was a case that his results were accomplished in a way unique in this period of system-based, automaton-like hockey. He was, for a moment in time, one of a kind. He was the one-man force of nature that had no analog on any team in the league. And, for that matter, had not seen the likes of in years, perhaps since Mario Lemieux was in his heyday stickhandling up ice and leaving defenders and goaltenders bewildered as he was celebrating another goal, or since Pavel Bure was thrilling fans with mad dashes up the ice that ended in highlight quality goals.
What fans might have been watching last night was a glimpse of the player Ovechkin is to become as he matures. Still a force capable of the occasional breathtaking flight up ice to score a highlight reel goal. But more often than not a finisher, a player who has learned the game, who can let his teammates do the heavy lifting on plays, yet who can finish those plays when need be.
It is the difference between being a force of nature and being a part of its evolution.