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Has Ovechkin Found Another Gear?

Before I get to No. 8, here's a quick injury report from today's practice:

Defenseman John Erskine, who took a shot off the foot Saturday night, did not skate. Usually that means the player won't be in the lineup the following night. But Coach Glen Hanlon cautioned that Erskine should be considered as a possibility against Tampa Bay.

Winger Matt Bradley also did not skate. He's been out four games with a hand injury and he's probably going to miss his fifth in a row against the Lightning.

Okay, back to Ovechkin.

I wrote last month that Ovechkin's defense has improved significantly this season. Well, I've noticed, particularly in recent games, that defense is not the only area where he's getting better.

As one person who watches him regularly said today, "It's like he's got rocket fuel in his skates" in recent weeks. Another person said he's playing with greater "intensity and determination" than the first two months of the season.

I completely agree.

Ovechkin is skating faster than ever. He's hitting harder than ever (ask Forsberg about that one). He's sharing the puck more, and more importantly, he's doing it at the right time. And, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, he's getting back and making plays in the defensive zone, too.

Here's what Chris Clark told me about Ovechkin's recent play:

"He's all over the place, he's hitting everybody, he's running over guys. He's causing so much. If he's not shooting the puck on net, he's driving to the net. Something's happening every shift. He's more involved."

I've got my theories on why we've seen such a sharp uptick in his level of play and I'll share them in tomorrow's paper.

Anyone else out there notice this change in Ovechkin's game?


By Tarik El-Bashir  |  December 18, 2006; 2:06 PM ET
 
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Comments

Yep...OV has stepped it up a notch.
1. Clicking with superb linemates. OV can confidently look to pass and notch an assist.
2. Second line (Semin) success forces teams' not to lazer only on OV.
3. OV trusts his new sticks not to break.
4. OV's defensive plays have forced turnovers which OV turns into goals.
5. Playoffs, playoffs, playoffs

Posted by: Dezlboy | December 18, 2006 3:22 PM | Report abuse

I agree with 2-5, especially 2. Zubie and Clark are about where they were last year, I think.

He's also a year older. He *should* be a year better.

He's a much better passer than his assist totals would indicate, too. He misses out on a lot of potential PP assists because the Caps don't have D who can get a shot on net.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 18, 2006 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Yeah. He's fun to watch, and eveyone else's play on the team has come up a couple of notches, too. It's been quite a ride for fans recently.

Posted by: Esquared | December 18, 2006 3:27 PM | Report abuse

He's definitely upped his game to another notch. I first noticed it in the Buffalo game when he stole the puck from Afinogenov, blew past Paetsch and wristed it home. Ever since then, he's been dominant during his shifts and doing everything he can to pick up two points for his team.

Tarik, have you heard anything about GMGM trying to land Zhitnik? He told a Philly reporter that he was interested in landing him but "couldn't work the money." Was he seriously interested?

Posted by: Gordo! | December 18, 2006 3:41 PM | Report abuse

I'm curious to see Tarik's take on AO's recent improved play. He might not be making as many of the highlight reel type plays but is producing more and is better at all-around play as well as using his teammates more. This is the kind of development the Capitals need from AO as they continue the maturation process through this rebuild.

I think many suspect AO was a little out of shape combined with some slight groin issues in training camp...though that is admitted a lot of speculation.

Posted by: usiel | December 18, 2006 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Gordo!: you are exactly right. I first noticed the uptick in Ovie's play against Buffalo.

Posted by: Tarik | December 18, 2006 3:54 PM | Report abuse

I'll venture a guess that he's improved his diet (less Wendy's/fast food) and off ice workout habits?

Posted by: E-dogg | December 18, 2006 4:32 PM | Report abuse

he didnt like being 10-15 points behind crosby, and he's the man.

Posted by: alec | December 18, 2006 4:44 PM | Report abuse

In the game against the flyers he was one or two bounces away from having two breakaways. It was a shame.

Its weird seein him flyy up the ice and the stop just inside the blueline and look for a pass (which he's been doing a lot more lately). I'm always anticipating him unleashing the wrister from the faceoff circel where he scored the majority of his goals last season.

Posted by: Graham | December 18, 2006 4:49 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if Crosby's meteoric rise in the scoring race will motivate AO to put up more points. Ovie seems like the type of player who won't play second fiddle to anyone, Crosby included.

Will AO make the scoring race interesting for us fans? I'll wager that he won't go down without a fight.

I also think that Alex and the Caps are starting to really believe that they can make the playoffs this year. During an interview on Canadian television at the end of last season, AO basically promised that the Caps would make the playoffs in 2007!

Posted by: Lammy | December 18, 2006 4:56 PM | Report abuse

He just seems happier now than when the season first started. Remember last season's unbridled joy at every goal? This year there was joy, but it was much more restrained. But on Saturday he almost knocked out Zubrus he hit him so hard in celebration after Zubrus' goal!

Posted by: TG | December 18, 2006 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Grahm: Yep.

OV took to heart what Hanlon (and team mates) told him last year. Don't hog the puck, play defense, and end your shift when coach says so. I miss the OV skate the length of the ice and score highlights. But, OV's more "mature" play makes the whole team better. And it prepares him for eight years from now, when he slows down! :-)

Posted by: Delzboy | December 18, 2006 5:05 PM | Report abuse

I think he was a little dinged to start the year, to be honest. Just watching him essentially take that game in Atlanta on his back and put the Thrashers away in OT was a joy to behold and the exclamation point on a statement of a few games that yes, indeed, AO is still not to be trifled with. Seeing him get his offensive groove back as well as keeping the other team honest in the defensive zone is outstanding.

Posted by: Goat | December 18, 2006 6:01 PM | Report abuse

Just an FYI on Erskine... he was reportedly limping very badly at the practice facility today. He was invisible and then someon who was there said she saw him sneaking out the door and he was hobbling so badly (like he should've been on crutches) that she ran over to hold the door open for him.

Posted by: Jay | December 18, 2006 8:59 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of injuries, saw the article on Jamie Heward on washcaps.com. Anyone know if he is going to be back tonight vs. TB after being scratched on Saturday b/c he took that puck off the chin? If not, and if Erskine's out, who will be the 6th d-man?

Posted by: Matt C | December 19, 2006 8:53 AM | Report abuse

I think the emergence of the Pettinger/Semin/Beech line has helped take some of the heat off of Ovie. Also, this team is tougher this year with Erksine and Brashear. Maybe knowing those guys are around has made Ovie feel more comfortable.

Posted by: Dave | December 19, 2006 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Tarik, I'm curious about Bradley's condition- if I recall correctly, when he first injured his hand it was said that it wasn't serious, but he's about to miss his fifth game because of it? What's the deal?

Posted by: Sonia | December 19, 2006 10:04 AM | Report abuse

The added poundage in the lineup certainly helps since opposing teams know that if they take a run at either of the Alex's or anyone else scoring for us that they'll get a pop in return. Even Zubrus is really stepping up his physical presence.

Having a seccond line that can regularly score certainly doesn't hurt either.

Posted by: EricS | December 19, 2006 10:55 AM | Report abuse

The goal in the flyers game was vintage Ovechkin. The first I've seen it this year. When he picked the puck up at the blue line he seemed destined to score. Good to see

Posted by: Capitol Hill | December 19, 2006 11:06 AM | Report abuse

I think a lot of these comments are grasping at straws. I think this is just Ovechkin's game. A look at last season proves it.

He played October and November at about a point per game as he did this season and without more than two points in any one game. On December 3, 2005 he started a 21 game tear where he scored 37pts. Where his multi point games outnumbered his single or no point games 13 to 8 including his only hat trick.

This season OV was about a point per game basis thru October and November and without a game of more than two points. Starting December 2, 2006 he has 16 pts in 7 games, four three point games and a hat trick.

Since this is only his second season, trends are hard to know for sure, but it doesn't seem like a coincidence to me.

Posted by: Rob | December 19, 2006 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Sonia: I don't think Bradley's injury is bad. I'm not concerned about it, and when I spoke to him the other day, neither was he.

Right now, there is no reason to rush him back. the team is winning, and Hanlon doesn't usually make changes to his lineup when things are going well anyway.

Posted by: Tarik | December 19, 2006 11:36 AM | Report abuse

I think Ovie took a well-deserved break this summer. When the season started, it took a little time to get in game shape, get that jump. Since he got it, the guy has been great. All the pieces have settled, the guys are exploring their roles. With Ovie, you can see a prescience emerge. I admit I watch most games twice. I watch everyone. Ovie has begun to expertly assess the play while in the neutral zone; he knows where the opponent is going to pass. He judges speed and so seems innocuous and then sweeps in and steals the puck. He readies himself on the back-check, tracking the play until his opportunity arises. His fore-checking is ferocious and its timing impeccable. He is starting to understand his own strength and so delivers even harder hits, loving it. All his enthusiasm and love of the game has melded with his intelligence and he is morphing into an archetypical player. When his career is over it will be evident that others play Hockey; Ovechkin is Hockey.

Posted by: Kerplunk | December 19, 2006 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Yes it looks to me like his acceleration has improved somewhat in the past 2 weeks. Just seems to get to high gear faster than earlier this season.

But I think the biggest change is in the completeness of his game. Just a couple of examples from the Flyers game on Saturday.

1. A big Ovechkin hit behind the Flyer goal knocks the puck loose from the defense and leads directly to the Zubrus goal.
2. Ovechkin hustles down the ice to wash out a Caps icing call which leads to a shot on goal. He then hustles all the way down the ice to backcheck on the counterattack, drawing a penalty in the process. One of the best shifts of the season.
3. Has the vision and presence to make the pass rather than the usual one-timer on the cross-ice pass from Zubrus on the powerplay, leading to Semin's tap-in goal. This demonstrates that he understands going to the same play (the cross-ice one-timer) every time will not work at the NHL level.
4. Coast-to-coast at the start of the 3rd period. Still able to beat most NHL defensemen straight up.

A absolute joy to watch. Even the 3 Flyer fans sitting behind me were astounded.

Posted by: Tom | December 19, 2006 3:08 PM | Report abuse

I'm guessing he's finally gotten into game shape. He's admitted before that he doesn't follow any kind of offseason training program. That probably hurts him in the preseason and for the first month of the season.

Posted by: Dan | December 19, 2006 5:07 PM | Report abuse

No doubt Ovie has tapped into another gear on the ice. There were portions of the Atlanta game when he made everyone else look like they were going in slow motion. It's probably just a coincidence that the Caps seem to have found their groove right around the time their Ballston practice facility opened up. But intangibles can really make a difference sometimes, and if the players feel like the franchise is moving up in the world, it can show up on the ice. Now if only the city would support its hockey team by showing up in the arena..

Posted by: Jason | December 19, 2006 5:07 PM | Report abuse

I've definitely noticed. I think he's just getting into the groove. He spent the entire off-season as a celebrity and admittedly spent next to no time on the ice - focusing on the weight room. I think he also spent the first six to eight weeks of the season focusing on defensive responsibilities. Now I think he's back into his groove. He's been on the ice since September and has become more comfortable with the defensive aspects of the game. Now that those are coming more naturally, he's thinking less and performing more.

Posted by: jaybird | December 19, 2006 6:07 PM | Report abuse

The maneuver that was mentioned in another comment (AO crossing the blueline and pulling up to look for a pass) is key. Gretzky killed people with this move, and I think it says alot about Ovie that he's making adjustments like this only 1/3 of the way thru his second season. If people have to respect that pass as he crosses the blueline its only going to give him more space to work his magic.

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