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Ovechkin peaking at the right time

BY ZAC BOYER

ARLINGTON—The chants echoing through the Verizon Center this weekend were unlike anything heard there in quite some time, and the man being serenaded by the crowd understood.

In many ways, Alex Ovechkin hasn’t been the same player he was during his first five years in the NHL. That’s when he routinely came near, or surpassed, 50 goals and 100 points.

There have been questions about his conditioning and his commitment. His contributions to the Washington Capitals have been accordingly criticized as his stature as one of the league’s most dominant players has diminished.

The great ones, though, are judged on wins—something Ovechkin also understands.

The Capitals (38–30–8, 84 points) are tied with Buffalo for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth and host the Sabres tonight in a critical game.

As they ramp up their quest for their fifth consecutive playoff berth, Ovechkin has played an instrumental role over the past 10 games, averaging a goal in each and scoring seven times in the last five games.

He played one of his more complete games on Sunday, a 3–0 home victory over Minnesota, when he logged 26:19 of ice time playing double shifts. He made a crucial diving stop in the second period, breaking up a shorthanded odd-man rush to save a potential goal, then later scored on a slap shot in the third when, as in the past, he set up a defenseman as a screen and rifled the puck past the frozen goalie.

That drew the cheers from the sold-out Verizon Center, with the crowd raining a chorus of “Ovi! Ovi!” upon the talented winger.

“I think today, I think probably like, two years ago, I have kind of trust in how I play,” Ovechkin said after the game. “I play every third shift almost every game, all game. I feel pretty good. I feel sharp when I wasn’t in the game. I was fresh and you know, it’s good for me.”

Ovechkin had a team-high five shots against the Wild, and he said after the game that the scoring is merely a product of pucks finally finding the back of the net.

His shooting, though, is down this season; he led the league in each of his first six years, averaging 421 shots, but is on pace for 303—a dip of 28 percent.

Twice among the league leaders in goals scored—he had 65 in 2007–08 en route to a career-high 112 points—Ovechkin currently has 36 and only 61 total points.

Those sluggish paces have picked up over the past two weeks, though. Several of his teammates said Tuesday after practice it’s because Ovechkin , with the final six games of the season clearly in front of him, has been playing more relaxed.

“I think when every game means so much, I think it pushes star players to be star players,” said forward Keith Aucoin, who was on Ovechkin’s double-shifted fourth line Sunday. “I think it’s showed in his game and I think he knows that we need him to be the guy that he’s been, and obviously, he’s been that the last month or so. It’s good to see.”

Added center Brooks Laich: “He looks like he’s having fun playing the game. It’s easy. When you score, you have fun, and when you have fun, you score. They kind of go hand in hand, but it’s tough to do it.

“Goal scorers love to score goals, and you see him—nobody gets more excited than him, so he’s fun to watch, man. When he’s in that mode, man, you follow in behind and you ride his coattails.”

Ovechkin’s influence on his teammates is unmistakable this season. In the 28 games Ovechkin has scored, the Capitals are 19–5–4; they’re 19–25–4 when he hasn’t. His scoring tear began March 8 against Tampa Bay when he netted an overtime winner, and his current streak of five goals in five games is his longest since midway through the 2010 season.

“Whenever he’s scoring, I think our team just moves that much smoother,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “You know, for him to be successful, he needs to score goals. We’re glad that he’s found his game at a very crucial time in the season.”

Tonight is a particularly crucial game. The Sabres, in last place in the middle of February and sellers at the trading deadline Feb. 27, have reeled off an improbable streak of 10 victories in 14 games.

Head coach Dale Hunter relied heavily on Ovechkin against Minnesota because he knew Ovechkin could handle it. He also knows Ovechkin is up for the challenge of leading the Capitals over the next six games.

“[Buffalo] is a big game, and big-time players step up,” Hunter said. “That’s what he’s been doing for us.”

Zac Boyer: 540/374-5440

zboyer@freelancestar.com

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