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Doubters take notice, dynamic Ovechkin back to old self

OvechkinWashington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin celebrates a goal against the Montreal Canadiens by teammate Jack Hillen during third period NHL hockey action Tuesday, April 9, 2013 in Montreal. The Capitals beat the Canadiens 3-2. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson


To say the man is back presumes he went somewhere in the first place.

In a sense, Alex Ovechkin did.

For five years he was half the answer to hockey's greatest debate – Sid or Ovie? Then he receded from the best-player-in-the-NHL discussion and fell into one about highly paid underachievers.

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It's been a dismal few years for the Washington Capitals' forward whose playoff rivalry with Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby – they each scored a goal in their first postseason meeting in 2009 and matched hat tricks in their second – gave him a share of "face of the league" honours.

"It was incredible," said Philadelphia Flyers winger Ruslan Fedotenko, a former Penguin on the ice that series, "a huge rivalry, at the time it was the biggest in the league, probably."

So where did the rambunctious, gap-toothed genius with the oxen frame and boyish glee go? He may have faded in hockey's collective consciousness, but as it turns out, he didn't go far.

If something was lost over the past couple of seasons – Sid vs. Ovie became a one-sided argument when the Pens won the Stanley Cup and Crosby scored the golden goal at the Vancouver Olympics – perhaps it has been found.

Ovechkin, whose Capitals face the Maple Leafs Tuesday night, reigns once more with 27 goals, and has led his team to a playoff position.

"I think it's great in any sport when you have a rivalry like that between teams and players individually," Fedotenko said. "[Ovechkin]'s on fire, it's great, Sid is out with an injury, Malkin's out too. It's good [for the game] to see other players step up and play so well."

Ovechkin's teammates and peers say many things about him in both public and private conversations, but intimating he ceased to matter, even briefly, isn't one of them.

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The numbers indicate a protracted dip in the Great 8's goal scoring between the 2010 Olympics and the late winter of 2012, but statistics measure production, not talent. Perhaps you do need to see the game from inside the glass to appreciate how terrifying an opponent the towering, speedy Russian is, even short of his rampaging best.

"I mean, how do you write a guy like that off?" Montreal Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges said. "I think he's my age, he's in the prime of his career, I don't know how many he's scored in his career, but I don't think he was just going to stop scoring."

Gorges was part of a Habs defence in the 2010 playoffs that gave the NHL a template of sorts on how to neutralize Ovechkin. (Get in his face and hope for stellar goaltending.)

What is beyond debate is that he's returned to playing with abandon, and can count on healthy, productive teammates to get him the puck. He has always known where to take it from there.

"One of the biggest things this year is the power play is getting him a lot of, I'm not going to say easy goals, but it's getting him a lot of confidence goals," said Habs centre Jeff Halpern, who had two stints in Washington and knows Ovechkin's game intimately.

At 27, it's unlikely that Ovechkin can keep scoring 50 goals each season. But he's not ready for a gold watch.

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As he said with characteristic bluntness on a recent stop in Montreal during which he scored the winning goal: "I don't have to prove nobody."

Ovechkin quietly notched 38 goals last year, if it's possible to do that, including a stretch of nine goals in seven games. He scored 20 in the last 34 games, but still closed the season with the lowest points total of his career.

The postlockout period began meekly, with the Caps introducing their third head coach in 18 months. But since March 10, the night he was roasted at devastating length by NBC analyst Mike Milbury for a lackadaisical effort against the New York Rangers, Ovechkin has scored 18 goals in 17 games.

It would be imprudent to suggest Ovechkin was spurred by anger over public humiliation. But it's clear he didn't appreciate Milbury's opinion.

"Right now I'm scoring goals and I'm the king of the world," Ovechkin told the Washington Times recently. "And a couple of weeks ago I was almost in the toilet. So maybe you just forget to flush me."

If not wounded pride, how to explain the latest streak, then?

Having a productive Mike Green (limited to a total of 81 games the last two years) and Nick Backstrom (who missed 40 games last year through injury) helps a great deal. So does the addition of slick play-making centre Mike Ribeiro via trade last summer and the improved play of winger Marcus Johansson.

"Having a lot of our people back healthy has been good for everyone, sometimes that's all it takes," Green said.

Together, they have yanked the Caps' power play from 18th a year ago all the way to first.

Ovechkin has scored 14 of his 27 goals on the man advantage this year, and scored 20 against non-playoff teams. He has spent more minutes on the power play than any player besides Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils.

In Ovechkin's last 50-goal season, 2009-10, the Caps had the league's best power play. In the intervening two years (when Ovechkin scored 32 and 38 goals), they were middle of the pack.

It seems more than coincidence, Ovechkin has scored 34.3 per cent of his career goals on the power play (the same percentage as the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos, who has scored more goals than anyone since 2009).

Ovechkin is also shooting the puck far more than in the first 24 games of the season, and more than the last couple of years, and doing so with greater efficiency. His shooting percentage is 14.2 per cent, the highest since his career-high 65-goal year in 2007-08.

Ovechkin has gone back to taking minute-long shifts, about six seconds longer, on average, than under defensive taskmaster Dale Hunter. Over a season, that adds up.

Head coach Adam Oates preached patience when the Caps limped in a slow start, but his decision to move Ovechkin to the right side – after a career spent marauding down the off-wing – is paying dividends.

He's bringing the same ferocity that characterized his best years, shows a different look to opponents.

"I don't know if it's anything I did," said a modest Oates, who has actually done plenty.

By moving Ovechkin to the right, where he and Backstrom can throw the puck to each other's forehand, Oates wanted his stud sniper to touch the puck more in the neutral zone – one of the game's greatest passers also wanted him to give it up more and trail the play more regularly.

But more than that, Oates understands Ovechkin implicitly, having played and roomed on the road with Brett Hull, one of the most prolific scorers in history.

"Playing with Brett, who, in a sense, they're kind of similar, I know what he feels like every night," Oates said. "I know he feels he has to score for us to win. We've tried to get him as many touches of the puck, involved in every play as much as possible."

Away from the rink, Ovechkin, who has long been known to have a vibrant social life, recently got engaged to professional tennis player Maria Kirilenko. A stint in the KHL during the lockout allowed him to spend more time at home in Moscow, which left him feeling "unbelievable."

All together, you have a contented man, a goal-scoring machine running at peak effectiveness. Put the question of personal happiness to him, however, and you get a sour face: "Let's talk about different stuff, not fun loving or anything like that."

How long can it continue?

Ovechkin's scoring pace over the past three weeks projects to a 93-goal season over 82 games, superhuman and unsustainable. Advanced possession statistics also suggest Ovechkin won't be impervious to the decline that afflicts power forwards as they approach their 30s.

That said, the Capitals aren't engaged in long-term thinking.

Last week, general manager George McPhee traded the 11th overall draft choice from 2012, highly touted Swedish forward Filip Forsberg, to obtain veteran scorer Martin Erat from the Nashville Predators (who promptly got hurt).

It's a clear signal that McPhee feels his team's Stanley Cup window is closing.

In the closely bunched Eastern Conference, the Caps have roared into the Southeast Division lead, and with the sterling play of goaltender Braden Holtby and a corps of versatile defencemen, they are well positioned. Should Ovechkin continue playing so imperiously into the postseason, there's no reason to think McPhee's Forsberg gamble won't pay off.

As this season has taught the rest of the league, a diminishing Ovechkin remains a formidable force.

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