WASHINGTON – Since his NHL debut in 2005, Alex Ovechkin has spent much of his career as one of hockey’s most entertaining and unpredictable characters both on and off the ice.
There was the hole-in-one he shot in a 2006 charity golf tournament despite never having played a round of golf before.
There was his declaration upon receiving the key to the city in 2008 that there would be no speed limit in Washington, D.C.
Then were the on-ice antics that few saw coming – his sporting oversized sunglasses, an outback hat and a Canadian flag at the 2009 All-Star Skills Competition, and his laying his hockey stick down on the ice after scoring his 50th goal that year because it was supposedly so hot that it was on fire (at least that was Ovechkin’s explanation).
Yet, for all the unpredictability since his rookie season, Ovechkin’s play between whistles in recent years has become more and more, well, predictable.
The word is out – has been for some time. Ovechkin will break down the left wing through the neutral zone, gain the opposition’s blue line, cut to the middle and look to fire a quick shot while using a defenseman as a screen. Some have referred to it as Ovechkin’s patented curl and drag – his signature move.
But for all of its success (see Ovechkin’s four 50-goal seasons), teams have it figured out. They know the curl and drag is coming and defensemen are playing Ovechkin accordingly – getting in the shooting lanes and taking away his time and space.
There are multiple reasons why Ovechkin was limited to a career-low 32 goals last season and is on pace for just 27 this year. The fact that defending teams have been able to successfully predict Ovechkin’s curl and drag is chief among them.
“Yeah, for sure,” Capitals Assistant Coach Dean Evason said of opponents catching on to parts of Ovechkin’s game.
“There is so much game tape watched and so many ways that Ovi is being checked. Everybody knows that he’s big and strong and shoots the puck and he gets so much back pressure. There are times when we see four people all around him and it’s difficult for him.”
That’s why Evason and new head coach Dale Hunter are encouraging Ovechkin to find different ways to score.
“We watch videos of the defenses against him, so he’s watching that, seeing that [defensemen] are standing up and giving him no room. So he has to create scoring chances in different ways,” Hunter said.
If Wednesday’s 5-3 win in Ottawa is any indication, the message seems to be getting through to the Caps’ captain. Ovechkin played one of his most complete games of the season with seven shots on goal and a highlight-reel goal in the third period that may rank among the prettiest of his career.
With the game tied 2-2, Ovechkin collected the puck in his own end and began to generate speed through the neutral zone. He continued up the left wing, gained the Senators’ blue line and rather than cut to the middle- that patented move – Ovechkin held the puck and continued to go wide.
Ovechkin was able to elude Erik Karlsson forcing the Senators defenseman to play catch up as Ovi continued around the net. When he emerged on the right side, Ovechkin quickly slammed on the brakes, losing Karlsson in the process.
With open space to shoot, Ovechkin pump-faked once then fired a wrist shot low glove side that beat Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson.
“He’s trying to expand his game and make things work when he has time,” said teammate Troy Brouwer. “He’s trying to be as patient as possible and for him to get a goal [Wednesday] is good to see – a good confidence builder. Hopefully he can continue to play like he did [against Ottawa].”
Added Evason: “We’re just trying to get him to have different looks, to pull up a little more, shoot from different angles, and go to different places on the ice and open himself up. He’s doing a real good job of recognizing that and fitting it into his game.”
While Ovechkin went wide and continued behind the net on his goal, he also went wide multiple times in the game before cutting to the middle once he was past the hash marks.
Ovechkin has also been using the right side of the ice more in recent games once he gathers the puck in the neutral zone and picks up speed.
“He was dangerous every shift,” Mike Knuble said. “He was getting the puck on the outside on his backhand drove the net a couple of times and then when he did score he swung the net- swung the net and stopped- and their defensemen kept going and then he just got creative with the shot.
“He played with a lot of passion last night and was dangerous a lot of times on the ice. He was a huge factor and we’d like to see it more times than that. When he’s like that it just brings everyone else along and carries you through the game.”
Catch the Capitals vs. Maple Leafs, Friday at 7:05. Coverage begins with Caps Pregame at 6:45 on Federal News Radio, WFED 1500AM, and online www.wfed.com.