Time flies, they say, but it sure seems to move a lot faster on ice.
Can it truly be less than three years since Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin put on the greatest display of playoff one-upmanship in hockey's modern era?
First, Ovechkin's Washington Capitals took control of the 2009 Eastern Conference semi-final. Crosby and Ovechkin even traded hat tricks one game. Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins then fought back to take the series to Game 7, Crosby scoring twice as his team ultimately moved on to win the Stanley Cup. Crosby finished that amazing series with 13 points, but Ovechkin had 14, the highest single-series point total in more than a decade. Many who covered that semi-final called it the greatest display of playoff hockey they ever witnessed.
But that was then and this is now.
Now, there is no Sidney Crosby, more than a year lost to concussion and his future as unknowable as his injury.
There is Alexander Ovechkin, but to see him this week in Ottawa was to be shocked by the difference. He stood in a far corner of the visitors' dressing room after the morning skate, skin sallow, hair showing flecks of grey at 26. He barely mumbled "I don't feel well" before being led away, and he did not play that night.
He seemed so much smaller than in 2009, diminished somehow, but that, surely, is the fate of those who are so much larger than life at their best. Where was the always grinning, chatty, kibitzing Ovechkin of the past? Where was the Ovechkin with the oversize sunglasses and the two sticks, making them laugh at the all-star skills competition in Montreal? Where was the "Great 8" who could lift an entire arena from the seats with a single, torpedo-like race down the left side, a quick flick of the wrists and the goaltender's water bottle flying as the puck, virtually unseeable, punched the back of the net?
Few in hockey have ever been so engaging. Even when he had little grasp of the language, the media loved him; he once described his reckless rushes as comparable to "running away from an angry dog." Now that he has the language, he has nothing to say.
Perhaps he was sick. Perhaps he has, as Washington head coach Dale Hunter said, a "lower body" injury. Perhaps, as some are suggesting, there is something wrong with the heads of both Crosby and Ovechkin, one self-inflicted. Whatever it is, the Alexander Ovechkin of 2012 is a far cry from the Alexander Ovechkin of 2009, not to mention 2006 (when he won the Calder Trophy as top rookie over Crosby), 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and the Hart, Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies he picked up along the way.
Some say he faltered last year, falling to 32 goals, as he was still in a funk over Russia's showing in the Vancouver Olympics. Some say he fell out with former coach Bruce Boudreau, but Hunter has been less successful with the Capitals and their puzzling captain than Boudreau was. Boudreau changed Washington from a creative attack squad to a more cautious style, something Hunter has stuck with, and perhaps it is this that appears to have sucked the fun out of the Capitals.
"I would turn these guys loose," analyst Pierre McGuire told an Ottawa radio station this week. "Less structure, more play."
Ovechkin seems to have lost his passion, if not a step. The team's associate goaltending coach, Olaf Kolzig, said this week that Ovechkin – barely into his 13-year, $124-million (U.S.) contract – needs to get over his "rock-star status" and start being a hockey star again. Harsh words, but perhaps truthful.
To watch the Capitals play these days is to see, as Churchill said of Russia, "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." So much talent, yet they seem a team just beginning training camp, disorganized and unfamiliar with each other. Picked by most experts to lead the Eastern Conference this year, they stumbled to 10th place this week after a 5-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes and a 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis called the loss to Carolina the "worst game of the season." Guess he didn't take in the Ottawa disaster.
On Friday, the Capitals defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 at home, they then play the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Saturday, and meet the New York Islanders on Tuesday – three teams also currently short of the playoffs. That might be some comfort if it were not for the fact, as one Washington commentator points out, the Capitals' record against weak teams is pitiful compared to previous years.
The players say they have simply played badly and will improve now that defenceman Mike Green is back from injury, and will improve even more once Ovechkin's playmaking centre, Nicklas Backstrom, returns from the concussion that has cost the slick Swede 22 games.
"If we were in this situation and we had played our best hockey, then I'd be concerned," forward Brooks Laich said in Ottawa, "but I think it's the other way around. I think our best hockey is yet to come."
Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals would be wise to start playing their best hockey immediately.
The way time is flying these days.