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What makes Alex Ovechkin so hard to stop?

What makes Alex Ovechkin so hard to stop?

With Alex Ovechkin’s one-game suspension over, the NHL now once again faces the seemingly impossible task of trying to find a way to stop the Great 8. Even at 34 years old, Ovechkin remains one of the top goal scorers in the NHL with 34 on the season. He is currently on pace for 56 goals which is almost unfathomable for a player of his age.

Many players in the NHL catch fire before defenses begin to figure them out or until Father Time catches up to them. Coaches and defenses figure out ways to keep star players in check. But not Ovechkin.

“You feel like you're covering him, but he always finds a way,” Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi said. “He needs just a tiny bit of room to score goals and that's why he has so many goals.”

Not only is Ovechkin the leading active scorer in the NHL by a wide margin -- he leads second place Patrick Marleau by 133 goals -- but he is such a prolific scorer that he could potentially make a run at the untouchable goal record held by Wayne Gretzky.

It is not as if Ovechkin is catching anyone by surprise at this point. Teams know what they are in for when they play the Caps and still they cannot find a way to slow down this grey-haired, 34-year-old veteran player.

It is not hard to figure out the biggest reason for Ovechkin's success: his shot. Once Ovechkin gets his shot off, it is hard for a goalie to get in front of it.

“He's not afraid to put anything on net,” Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck said. “He's got a really good release and if you give him space, he'll take it and he'll make you pay for it.”

“It kind of curves, changing direction every time so it's pretty hard to stop for a goalie,” Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy said. “Like knuckleball, right? So it's very hard to stop.”

Knowing that his shot is so lethal, the focus of a defense must be to prevent him from getting his shot away in the first place. Doing that, however, is easier said than done.

“It's always a challenge playing against him,” Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “He's got that mean streak to his game. When he's coming at full speed it's going to hurt. He gets physical, he gets into the game more. He's always going to get scoring changes, that's how good they are as a team and that's how good he is.”

“He just can score from anywhere inside the blue line so you've got to get up on him,” Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano said. “ It's been pretty impressive to watch him over the years. You sort of think teams would come up with a gameplan to stop him, but you can't.”

That’s a feeling Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy can relate to.

“[The power play] is where I think you have the biggest challenge with that group of five guys and how to frustrate him, maybe to taking that shot away,” Cassidy said. “Five-on-five, we'll play him like anybody else, try to get a body on him as much as possible.”

It is essentially accepted around the league that if you give Ovechkin an opportunity with the puck, he is going to be able to find a way to get his shot off and get on the scoresheet. He does not need much room to shoot and when he does, it's lethal.

There is only so much you can do when a power forward of Ovechkin's size comes barreling down on you. If you play him too tight, he can create space with his physicality. Play him too loose and he will fire shots from anywhere.

That leaves a defense with only a few strategies.

“Try to keep the puck out of his hand is one thing, stay out of the box is another thing,” Hedman said. “He's got that quick release, he's got that one-timer down to a T obviously. … It's just trying to eliminate them to a few a game. You look at a game sheet and he's got 14 shot attempts and two goals. A good player's going to find the net if they get that many chances, so try to eliminate the shot attempts and try to keep the puck out of his hands.”

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What does the future hold for Ovechkin?

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What does the future hold for Ovechkin?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Paul Trubits writes: I have a theory that the Caps picked up Ilya Kovalchuk to make Alex Ovechkin happy and to be a big brother to Evgeny Kuznetsov and the other Russians. Any thoughts?

I am sure that was a factor, but that is not why the Capitals ultimately brought him in. While the third line has played better of late, it just has not been able to provide enough offense this season. What's more, when the top-six has struggled, there really is no player for Todd Reirden to plug on the wings in order to shake things up like they had with Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky in the past. The addition of Kovalchuk gives this team a much deeper top-nine in terms of scoring depth. He steps in and has more goals (nine) than both Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik (seven each).

Kovalchuk's relationship with the team's Russians likely played a factor in terms of Brian MacLellan feeling confident he would be able to fit into the locker room well, but that ultimately is not why he was brought in.

Captain Obvious writes: With an obvious lack of team speed compared to others, why don't we mirror our most successful campaigns by playing "heavy" and taking away the fluidity of other teams?

That's exactly what they have been getting back to the last few games.

There is a portion of the Caps' fanbase that seems to believe the Caps are "soft." They're not. This is a very heavy team that likes to play a physical style of game. The problem is that it is very hard to do that for 82 games, which is why it's not all that surprising to see the team struggle in January and February. The fact that their "slump" went on for as long as it did was surprising, but I always expected the team to take a step back at some point from the blistering pace it set at the start of the season. It's a lot easier to make those physical plays at the start of the season than it is for a Monday game in February. Because you can't play physically for 82 games, people will watch a random game in which they just don't bring the body that night and declare the team as being soft despite the fact that five of the top 22 hitters in the NHL play for Washington. Watch the two games the Caps have played against the Pittsburgh Penguins. There was clearly an emphasis on physical play, and as a result, the Caps outscored Pittsburgh 6-2 in the third period.

Granted, you have to take "hits" as a stat with a grain of salt because the way hits are measured from arena to arena varies wildly, but make no mistake, this team is a big-bodied team that considers physical play a big part of its identity.

Tim K. writes: How much of the Capitals' faceoff problems come from the centers and how much from the support guys? Philadelphia has strong and quick centers, but it seems that the wings are also really good at collapsing and helping to capture the puck. Is this fixable or a reality the Caps have learned to live with?

This is a great point and something Reirden has talked about before. Winning faceoffs is not just about the centers, it is about the wingers coming in to support. When the faceoff is coming on the left side of the offensive zone, for example, the Caps routinely run a play in which Alex Ovechkin immediately cuts off the wall for the center. If the puck is loose behind the center, he picks it up and shoots. In that sense, it works to the Caps' favor. But there are a lot of losses in the offensive zone, especially when the team is focused on running a play and not coming in to support the center. Overall, I think this contributes to the problem because I don't think the Caps' wingers do enough to support on the faceoffs.

Brett Eppley writes: In the previous mailbag, you brought up Evgeny Kuznetsov's faceoff percentage as 43% this year. Do you think switching him to a winger, a position which would free him of defensive and faceoff responsibilities of being a center, would help get his point production up?

There's more to being a center than faceoffs and defense. Kuznetsov's skating and playmaking ability are ideal for the center position. He is also very good on zone entry. Putting him on the wing would mean involving him in more board battles and the forecheck which would not suit his game well. I get the defensive deficiencies can be frustrating, but Kuznetsov is one of the top offensive centers in the NHL and his skillset dictates that's where he should be. Also, it's a lot harder to find a top-six center than it is a top-six winger. You move Kuznetsov and you've created a gigantic hole in Washington's lineup.

Craig Boden writes: Alex Ovechkin has 700 now, he's 35 in September. What does his next contract look like? And can he get close to 894 goals?

After Ovechkin scored 700 I wrote on whether he could catch Wayne Gretzky's record. I don't know if he will ultimately get there, but the thing fans should be excited about is that the math is becoming more and more realistic.

As for his next contract, my guess is that he goes no more than four years. His next contract will not begin until he is 36 years old. He is going to stay in the NHL as long as he continues playing at a high level, but I can't see him being content as a third-line player scoring 10-15 goals a year. Even when his play eventually drops off -- which, as unbelievable as it may seem, it will at some point -- he can still walk into the KHL and be a top player. I think he re-signs for three or four years and then re-evaluates when that contract ends how close he is to the record and whether he thinks he can get it. As for the price, I don't see him trying to break the bank. Nicklas Backstrom's new deal gives him a cap hit just under what Ovechkin makes now. I think he signs somewhere in the $9.5 to 10.5 million range, but no higher than that.

Justin Cade writes: How would you rank Brian MacLellan’s offseason priorities? Do you see the Caps making an effort to retain Brenden Dillon among trying to secure Jakub Vrána and working out a new deal for Alex Ovechkin?

In terms of priority and not what I think will happen first, Alex Ovechkin's new deal is No. 1, 2 and 3. He can't re-sign until July 1, but I would be shocked if it does not get done by then. The decision on Braden Holtby would be second, though I think the decision is pretty much made at this point. It does not make sense for either side for him to stay in Washington. Assuming he does not re-sign, signing a replacement to be the backup quickly becomes high on the list of priorities as I do not think we are going to see an Ilya Samsonov and either Vitek Vanecek or Pheonix Copley tandem next season unless there are no other viable options.

The blue line will also be a high priority for MacLellan. Dillon just got here but I could see the team trying to re-sign him depending on the level of concern over Michal Kempny's play. Dillon fits the mold of the type of player Brian MacLellan covets, a big physical player who is also mobile and opponents hate to play against. With a glut of left defensemen in the pipeline, however, I believe MacLellan is going to have to make a choice between Dillon and Dmitry Orlov. If Dillon is interested in returning, I am not sure it makes sense to have both signed for long-term because that will make it very difficult for Jonas Siegenthaler, Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary to work their way in.

The mess on the right also has to be figured out. This team needs a second-pair right defenseman and I cannot fathom any way in which they head into next season convincing themselves that Nick Jensen or Orlov can do it. I don't know how much more evidence you need at this point.

As for other players in need of new deals, the team will have to re-sign Jonas Siegenthaler and, as you noted, I would not be surprised if there is some movement to re-sign Vrana. He will have one year left on his contract, but his next deal is not going to get any cheaper. With 24 even-strength goals, he is tied for seventh in the NHL with Jack Eichel and Leon Draisaitl.

John Massey writes: During Ovechkin's five-game goal drought, every time a whistle stopped play and Alex went to the bench, the camera showed him tearing the tape off his stick and re-tapping. It just seemed like he was doing it way more than in the past. I don't understand that dynamic of doing it frequently during stoppages instead of intermissions. Can you explain?

This is a matter of preference. Ovechkin always does this very frequently. Some players are so particular about the tape that if it gets scuffed for rips a little, they take it off and do it all over. Like I said, it's a matter of preference.

Tape affects the sticks' grip of the puck when stickhandling and shooting. For a sniper like Ovechkin, he wants the tape to be just right or he feels his shot will be off. When you are one of only eight players to score 700 goals, you let him tape that stick as often as he wants.

Micah Reed writes: I saw that former Capitals prospect Chase Priskie was dealt by the Carolina Hurricanes to the Florida Panthers in a package for Vincent Trochek. With the way the right side of the Caps’ defense has played out this year and Priskie's decent performance in the AHL, do you think Priskie would have been given a shot with the Caps had he chose to sign here?

Knowing the state of the right side of the defense, I believe Priskie would have been watched carefully in training camp and in Hershey. I do not doubt he would have had a chance in Washington this year. After all, there's a reason the team recalled Martin Fehervary and plugged him into the top four for three games. Priskie would have had a decent shot at being that call-up.

Priskie's decision not to sign with the Caps continues to puzzle me. He left the Caps' organization for a team with a more crowded blue line and was traded away in less than a year. He had every right to do what he did, the rules allowed for him to become a free agent, but I have yet to hear an explanation that makes sense. I tried to interview while he was with Charlotte, but he declined.

Mike Doyle writes: I was born in the DC area but now live in Connecticut so everything I get to see with the Caps is on TV. It seems to me like the arena is not as loud as it used to be. Do you think our fans are not as into the regular season games as other team’s fans or is my TV just not picking it up?

If you are going off of recent games, the arena has been full of trepidation during the team's recent skid. The Caps' fanbase is nothing if not pessimistic. Otherwise, the arena has been just as boisterous as ever.

Cory Goodwin writes: I come from a country where hockey is not so prevalent which makes it hard to learn. So, I was wondering how the players know to change lines? Is it just instinct, or the coaches, or something else?

The coaches will tell the players when to change lines or players on the ice will head over for a change. When teams change on the fly, players will always go in for their corresponding position to avoid too many players going on too soon and getting a too-many men penalty. Also, during a stoppage in play, teams have to wait for the referee to say they can change. The visiting team always has to change first during a stoppage. This gives the home team an advantage of seeing who is on the ice and matching up accordingly.

By all means, feel free to send in your hockey 101 question! It can be a complicated sport sometimes and there are plenty of games where I find myself looking through the rule book.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, you can submit it here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

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Capitals meet Jets for second time in two days after shootout win

Capitals meet Jets for second time in two days after shootout win

Just two days after the Capitals (39-18-6) beat the Winnipeg Jets (32-27-6) in a shootout in Washington, the teams play again with the rematch in Winnipeg. Catch the game broadcast and the pre and postgame coverage on NBC Sports Washington. Pregame coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Caps FaceOff Live followed by Caps Pregame Live at 7:30 p.m. bringing you up to the 8 p.m. puck drop. Stick with NBC Sports Washington after the game for postgame coverage with Caps Postgame Live and Caps Overtime Live.

Here's what you need to know for Thursday's game.

The rematch

On Tuesday, the Caps jumped out to a 3-0 lead and looked like they were going to bury the Jets. Winnipeg rebounded to tie the game at 3, but Washington held on for the shootout win. The Jets will be looking for a better start to this game, while the Caps will be hoping for a better finish.

This game will be the final meeting between these two teams this season.

Goalie switch

Because of the home-and-home matchup, both teams will be switching up their starters in net. For Washington, Ilya Samsonov will start. He suffered the first road loss of his career on Saturday against the New Jersey Devils, bringing his road record to 10-1-0 with a .916 save percentage and 2.28 GAA.

For Winnipeg, starter Connor Hellebuyck will step in. Hellebuyck has had a Vezina caliber season with a 2.72 GAA and .918 save percentage, backstopping a team with major defensive issues heading into the season. Despite his strong play, he enters the game with two straight losses and four losses in his past six starts.

Lather, rinse, repeat

After finding some success the past two games, Todd Reirden will stick with the same lineup. Here are the lines from Thursday's morning skate:

Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - Ilya Kovalchuk
Richard Panik - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway

Brenden Dillon - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen
Michal Kempny - Radko Gudas

Standings watch

The Caps are slowly working their way out of their recent slump and come into Thursday's game with two straight wins. The Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, have hit a skid. With their loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday, the Penguins have now lost four straight. They still hold a game in hand over Washington, but the Caps hold a four-point lead over Pittsburgh for first place in the Metropolitan Division. The Philadelphia Flyers are also lurking with 79 points, five back of Washington's 84.

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