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10 years later, Ovechkin seeking one more trophy

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10 years later, Ovechkin seeking one more trophy

Ten years ago tonight, Alex Ovechkin rumbled his way into the Verizon Center, and by extension the hearts of a new generation of Capitals fans, when he scored a pair of goals and body slammed unsuspecting opponents in his NHL debut, a 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Four hundred and seventy-five goals later, the Caps’ 30-year-old captain is still bringing fans out of their seats while silencing critics who wondered how long he could sustain his racing-of-the-bulls style.

Former Capitals defenseman Brendan Witt recalls the hype that surrounded Ovechkin when he entered the NHL following the 2004-05 lockout.

“At the time I know a lot of Russian guys were stereotyped for their (lack of) work ethic and when I met Ovi I saw a really strong guy with a great work ethic,” said Witt, who is now raising Himalayan yaks on a 100-acre farm in Montana.

MORE CAPS: ROSTER GETS FINALIZED BEFORE OPENER 

“Maybe it was because it was his Dad (Mikhail, a professional soccer player) was a really good athlete and his Mom (basketball player) was in the Olympics and they kept him very grounded. You just saw this natural athleticism he had and his pure power. He liked the physical play, he liked scoring goals and he was so energetic.

“We knew he was going to be something special at training camp that year. It was an exciting time because you knew he was the real deal at such an early age.”

Ovechkin turned 20 just before the start of that 2005 training camp, but former Capitals captain Jeff Halpern was not convinced he was meeting a future Hall of Famer when he introduced himself to Ovechkin that summer.

“The first day I met him he looked like the Incredible Hulk, in a bad way,” Halpern recalled. “He had jean shorts that were like Daisy Duke specials, and sandals, and his T-shirt was waaaay too tight on him. He looked like a mess. I was like, 'geez.' Kind of like a Hanson brothers reaction.”

On the ice, Halpern had similar reservations about the Caps’ new franchise player.

“He didn’t skate well. We did some drills and I thought, ‘Man, this guy’s a mess when he skates.' I guess I didn’t notice how powerful his stride was.”

Halpern said he recalls the Capitals holding Ovechkin out of several preseason games that September but recalls one game in which Ovechkin scored a goal against the Flyers, skated past the Philadelphia bench, and winked.

“I was like, ‘You just don’t do that,’” Halpern said.

Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins superstar-in-waiting Sidney Crosby came into the NHL in 2005 with equal fanfare, each charged with reviving disgruntled fan bases and a league that had just gone through a nasty labor dispute.

“They were different types of players,” recalled former NHL defenseman Luke Richardson, who was on the ice for the Columbus Blue Jackets the night Ovechkin played his first game with the Capitals. “It was kind of like (Wayne) Gretzky and (Mario) Lemieux. They were both dominant, but they were very different players because of Lemieux’s physical attributes.

[RELATED: WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE CAPS IN PRESEASON]

“But looking back, it was very rare. It was almost like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. They almost fed off each other to be better.”

On Oct. 5, 2005, Crosby made his NHL debut, recording one assist and three shots in a 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. Ovechkin arrived with a much bigger bang.

“We didn’t really know what to expect with the team that we had and him,” Halpern recalled. “But that first shift of the game, when he ran that kid into the end boards and they had to fix the glass and the kid had to peel himself off the ice -- even that hit wasn’t normal. It kind of woke up everyone. It woke myself up for sure.”

That “kid” steamrolled by Ovechkin was actually 29-year-old Czech defenseman Radoslav Suchy and, to this day, Caps play-by-play announcer Joe Beninati says he he’ll never forget the force with which Ovechkin slammed the 6-foot-2, 204-pound defenseman.

Neither will Richardson.

“When he laid out one of our defensemen behind the net, we all looked at each other like, ‘Oh, man,’” Richardson recalled.

The Blue Jackets probably uttered those same words 7:21 into the second period when Ovechkin scored his first of two goals, launching a pass from Dainius Zubrus past Columbus goaltender Pascale Leclaire on his patented one-timer from the high slot.

“We addressed it before the game,” Richardson said. “We said you can’t give him an inch and he still got open for two goals. I guarantee you teams are still saying that before they face the Capitals today and he’s still finding ways to get open.

“It’s unbelievable, really, with the way the game is played today and the attention teams give him, that he can still score 50 goals.”

Ovechkin went on to score 52 goals that rookie season and his 106 points were four more than Crosby, who finished second behind Ovechkin in Rookie of the Year voting.

Since then Ovechkin has won three Hart Trophies as league MVP, five Rocket Richard Trophies as the NHL’s leading goal scorer and one Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leader in points. Crosby has won two Hart Trophies, two Art Ross Trophies, one Rocket Richard Trophy and one Stanley Cup.

Both players faced their share of challenges in recent seasons, with Crosby missing parts of two seasons because of concussions and Ovechkin seeing his goal totals dip into the 30s from 2010-12 and his plus-minus plummet to a career-worst minus-35 in 2013-14.

But while Crosby became a sympathetic figure, Ovechkin became a lightning rod for criticism.

“I think that’s sports in general,” Witt said. “When a high profile player isn’t having a good year everyone takes pot shots at him. He knows that and he’s had to learn to deal with it the best way he can and silent the naysayers when he has a good night.

“Last year he worked on his defensive play and it showed a lot. I know he got a lot of criticism about his plus-minus and that he didn’t care. At the end of the day, if you know Ovi personally, he cares a lot. And now that he’s gotten older he wants to achieve that goal of winning the Stanley Cup for the franchise.”

Halpern said he believes Ovechkin uses his critics as a quiet motivation.

“It’s not Ovi’s mission statement in life to get back at those guys,” Halpern said, “but I think he takes a quiet note of things and when he produces and shines the way he so often does, he’s pretty quick to let those people know.”

Kind of like winking at the bench of the Philadelphia Flyers.

But to those who have followed Ovechkin’s career, there is complete agreement that he is playing with a different purpose than he did 10 years ago. And for that reason, many believe he is poised to lead the Capitals somewhere they have never been before.

Now, the question that lies in front of Ovechkin is not whether he can continue to score 50 goals, but whether he can lead the Caps to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

“When you get those singular awards, you’re celebrating them by yourself,” said Richardson, now the head coach of the AHL Binghamton Senators. “I think that’s what drives players (like Ovechkin). They might have a scoring championship but they realize they don’t have the real crown.

“I think Barry Trotz has done a great job with him. Last year you saw that resurgence. He’s really become a leader and I think he’s driven to not only score 50 goals but to lead his team to something greater. He wants to win and that’s the difference.

“I think you saw it with Steve Yzerman. There was a change in his game when Scott Bowman talked to him about maybe not being a 50-goal scorer and a 100-point guy, but being a little better in areas away from the puck and defensively, and all of a sudden he’s the captain of a Stanley Cup winner, blocking shots and playing with a bum knee and grinding it out. Those type of players who elevate their game because they’re leaders and they’re winners. And that’s what you see Ovechkin turning into.”

Halpern agrees, saying that with 475 goals and 895 points in 760 games, Ovechkin already has met the great expectations that escorted him into the NHL 10 years ago tonight.

“Clearly,” Halpern said. “I don’t think anybody could have expected him to produce the amount of goals and had the impact on the ice that he’s had. He’s a generational player. No one has even come close to scoring as consistently as Ovi has over the last 10 years. In that sense, he’s met expectations.

“With that, everybody expects a player like that to bring 10 championships to a city. That’s a big expectation to put on one person. I think he’s exceeded what anybody has expected him to do. I think if you asked him, until they win, maybe it hasn’t been fulfilled. But individually, I don’t think you can ask anything more of a player.”

Asked about the 10-year anniversary of his first NHL game, Ovechkin smiled, then turned serious.

“It’s been 10 years,” he said. “This is my second home. Obviously, I feel really good here. I love this place. But we didn’t do lots of stuff with team success, so we have to do a good job this year.”

It is fulfilling that unfinished business that Witt believes will cement Ovechkin’s place in NHL history.

“I think now in his career he’d rather win a Stanley Cup than get 50 goals,” Witt said. “I think now that he’s older it’s about team leadership and winning a Stanley Cup. That’s what will ingrain him forever.

“We all remember 50-goal scorers, but if he can win a Stanley Cup with the Caps he’ll never be forgotten -- ever.”

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Why the Capitals' new penalty kill strategy continues struggling

Why the Capitals' new penalty kill strategy continues struggling

After the first day of training camp in September under new head coach Todd Reirden, he made clear one of the changes he wanted to see this season.

“I think you look at certain areas that you like to improve on,” Reirden said. “You look at where things settled out for us last year in the regular season statistically and then particularly as we went through the playoffs areas you can get better. There is always room to get better, and those were some spots I thought we could make some adjustments to in the penalty kill and some other things that you’ll maybe see as we move forward. I would say that would be the biggest difference there.”

Washington’s new-look power play, however, has gotten off to a rocky start and cost the team two losses in their last four games, despite giving up only two goals at five-on-five. 

The Capitals penalty kill is down to 71.7-percent, which ranks 29th in the NHL. During the last four games, Washington gave up six power-play goals, including two against an Arizona Coyotes team -- which handed the Caps their most recent loss, 4-1, Sunday -- that ranks in the lower half of the league in its power play efficiency and was playing on the second leg of a back-to-back. 

“Obviously, we’re struggling there, and it’s something that we’ve got to be better at,” Nicklas Backstrom said.

The addition of players like Evgeny Kuznetsov (1:16 of penalty kill time on Sunday) signaled a more aggressive style of penalty killing, one in which teams have to account for Washington’s offensive threat even while on the power play. You can see that more aggressive style at work as the Caps clearly try to push the puck into the offensive zone more so than in years past.

Thus far, however, the team has struggled to find a balance between pushing the offense while not leaving themselves vulnerable defensively. That was evident Sunday on Arizona’s first goal.

While on the penalty kill, three Caps players joined the rush for an offensive opportunity that ended with Darcy Kuemper saving a shot from John Carlson. The Coyotes turned a big rebound into a rush in the other direction, and the Caps were caught completely out of position. While the penalty killers nearly got back in time, they had no time at all to set up the penalty kill, and Arizona capitalized with a few quick passes.

“It’s just a bad read by us,” Backstrom said. “Too many guys attacking there instead of maybe playing it out and waiting for it to be five-on-five. We saw an opportunity. It’s easy to say that after, too. But, yeah, there’s absolutely an area that we can be better at.”

If the Caps want to find a way to be offensively dangerous and also defensively sound on the penalty kill, they need look no further than their opponent on Sunday. Not only do the Coyotes boast the top penalty kill in the league with a success rate of 91.8-percent, but they have also tallied an incredible nine shorthanded goals already this season. They have found a formula that works for them in both ends of the ice, something that clearly has proven elusive for the Caps.

It should be noted that Washington is also missing Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik from the lineup, three players who were major contributors to the penalty kill last season. While Beagle has moved on to the Vancouver Canucks, they will be getting Wilson and Orpik back at some point. Their addition will provide a boast, but for now, the Caps need to find a solution and fast because the penalty kill is clearly costing them points in the standings.

“I think there's some ways of evaluating it that it's getting better, but it's not getting it done,” Reirden said after Sunday’s game. “You can continue to look at it different ways. We have some different personnel in that situation, a different way of going about things on the penalty kill, but right now it's costing us games. We can't expect to win when you're giving up penalty kill goals like we are at the rate we are right now.”

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NHL Power Rankings: Caps finish off a sluggish home stand

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NHL Power Rankings: Caps finish off a sluggish home stand

One of the major talking points of the offseason was whether or not the Caps could avoid the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover. Well despite all the planning by the team on how to avoid it and all the talk about how they would avoid it, guess what? At 7-6-3, they find themselves right smack dab in the middle of it.

Washington’s title defense has gotten off to a sluggish start and the team now finds itself tied for fifth in the Metropolitan Division with 17 points.

SEE THIS WEEKS’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE 

Here are a few observations from the past week:

  •  People won’t want to hear it, but the Caps did show improvement in the two areas that were the biggest question marks heading into their five-game home stand, goaltending and five-on-five defense. Braden Holtby looks much improved from the start of the season giving credence to his claim that he plays better when he can get into a rhythm of playing frequently. As for the defense, Washington has allowed two five-on-five goals in their past four games. Any team would take that, but the Caps walked away with only two wins in those four games. That leads me to my next point…
  •  The penalty kill is atrocious right now. While the defense has allowed two five-on-five goals in the past four games, they also allowed six power play goals over that same stretch. When Todd Reirden said in training camp that he wanted the penalty kill to be more aggressive offensively, I think he envisioned something like what we see from Arizona right now. The Coyotes have the best penalty kill in the NHL (91.8-percent) and also have scored an absurd nine shorthanded goals already this season. The Caps have not figured out how to be aggressive offensively while not leaving themselves vulnerable defensively and that directly led to Arizona’s third goal on Sunday. Reirden and assistant coach Scott Arniel may need to study the Coyotes’ PK a little bit to figure out how they have been so dominant on both ends.
  •  Another issue the Caps face is on offense as they can’t score without the power play. In their last three games, they have scored only twice at five-on-five. For the season, Washington is 0-4-1 in games in which they have not scored at least one shorthanded goal.
  • If you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s this: the Metropolitan Division may be bad this year. The Metro division has won the Stanley Cup in each of the past three seasons, but the division as a whole looks like it’s taken a step back. Pittsburgh just snapped a five-game losing streak, you or I could play goalie for Philadelphia right now (and we’d probably be an upgrade), it’s only a matter of time before both the Islanders and Rangers bottom out, Columbus has been wildly inconsistent, Carolina can’t score and New Jersey has lost nine of its last 11 after starting 4-0. So don’t despair Caps fans, there’s still plenty of time for Washington to turn things around.
  • After a sluggish week at home, where do the Caps stand among the rest of the NHL? 

FIND OUT HERE IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS

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