Alex Ovechkin's mysterious slump, laughing Leafs and more
Alex Ovechkin has scored only twice and struggled to convert his chances
His center, Nicklas Backstrom, is slumping, but Alex Semin has been hot
Maple Leafs are loose with no expectations; NHL GMs must address headshots
The Twilight Zone statistic of the first month of NHL season: Alexander Ovechkin is tied with George Parros in goal scoring, with two apiece.
Now this is just a hunch, but Ovechkin, who won the Rocket Richard Trophy last season with a retro 65 goals, probably will overtake the Anaheim enforcer, whose goal output figures to droop along with the corners of his moustache. (Parros, who entered the season with four goals in 158 games, and who never has had more than two in a season, is a Princeton-educated fellow well aware, as the well-worn hockey expression goes, that he is a crusher and not a rusher.)
Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals' incandescent left-winger, began this season with 163 goals in his first 245 regular season games, an average of .62 per game -- a statistic that compares favorably with Wayne Gretzky (.60), Brett Hull (.58) and even the Rocket himself (.57).
But when Ovechkin, who through Monday's games was tied for 97th in goals, has one fewer than defensemen like Anaheim's François Beauchemin and Nashville's Shea Weber and also trails the Vancouver pair of, no, not Daniel and Henrik Sedin but Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen, there is only one question: What's going on?
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau is not quite sure himself.
"He had five really good scoring chances against Dallas (last Saturday)," Boudreau says. "Nothing went in. The chances are that given the law of averages, they'll start going in soon."
Even in Washington, D.C., the law of averages is not subject to a presidential veto. And certainly Ovechkin, the Hart Trophy-winner, has not suddenly grown reticent about putting pucks on net. He had 41 shots in eight games, which suggests he is functioning much like he did during his first three seasons when he put 1,263 shots, an average of a little more than five per game, on target while playing in all but one of Washington's games. (The match he misses against Nashville on Tuesday -- he returned to Moscow to attend to an ailing grandfather -- will be his first out of the lineup since his rookie season, a remarkable accomplishment considering his hell-for-leather, physical style.)
Nor has his enthusiasm waned. Ovechkin, who is without a goal in six games (and had a drought of seven last March) is, according to Boudreau, "still the same guy willing to do anything for the team. On our west coast trip, I was going over video with the team and, let's just say I wasn't real happy with the video. Alex comes over to me and says, 'Make sure you give me crap. Don't leave me out.' Not that he deserved any of it, but he just wanted everyone to know that he can get (yelled at), too."
If there is any lingering cause for the Capitals' concern about Ovechkin's slow start, it is the indifferent play of his center, Nicklas Backstrom, who had 55 assists last season as a rookie. He and Ovechkin shared a fine working relationship, along with right winger Viktor Kozlov, but Backstrom has been sluggish, with no goals and three assists.
"They were two peas in a pod who played very well together," Boudreau said. "I don't know if they're getting frustrated, but I have the utmost faith in their abilities to pull themselves out of this."
There is, however, a Russian named Alex who is scoring in bunches for the Capitals. Alexander Semin, who is as shy as Ovechkin is boisterous, was tied for third in the NHL with seven goals. He has been helped by the counsel of Sergei Fedorov, the late-season acquisition in 2007-08 who re-signed with the Capitals. Fedorov can do it all apparently: play forward, defense and psychologist. Incidentally, Scotty Bowman, the Chicago Blackhawks' senior advisor who coached him in Detroit, thinks Fedorov, the 1994 Hart Trophy-winner, has slam dunk credentials for future election to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The jokes are usually about the Toronto Maple Leafs, not during the Maple Leafs' practices. But in the first month of the season, there has been a considerable dose of old-fashioned hockey tomfoolery on a team that looked like it would be laughed at and not laughed with.
Twice, so far, Leafs players have sawed coach Ron Wilson's stick so it broke when he tried to shoot a puck. They upped the ante on Monday, stealing the pea from the coach's whistle and stuffing the aperture. Wilson asked assistant Tim Hunter, standing nearby on the ice, to blow his whistle and feigned that nothing was amiss, but the coach is plotting his revenge.
"Payback is sweet," Wilson laughingly said Monday afternoon. "What I really like about this is that some of the European guys have been a part of this. You don't get that on some teams, but here they're right in it, part of the group. I like a team that has fun, that's vocal, that's enthusiastic. You don't want a team of robots. Sometimes the weight of expectations squelches the excitement on some teams, but here there weren't any."
The Maple Leafs have had a creditable start. Let's see if there is any sophomoric slump.
At the general managers meeting last week, Montreal's Bob Gainey proposed that players not be allowed to dive in order to block shots. The one-foot-on-the-ice suggestion, while impractical to enforce by referees who already have a lot on their plates, nonetheless was outside-the-box thinking in an effort to ratchet up goal scoring. Fewer blocked shots, theoretically, will result in more goals.
Meanwhile a few days later, Doug Weight of the New York Islanders caught Carolina's Brandon Sutter with an absolutely clean yet brutal neutral-ice check, shoulder to head, that put Sutter in the hospital with a concussion.
The issue of headshots continues to bedevil the NHL, as Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford noted. Maybe the time has come for GMs to leave the fringes of the game and start thinking inside the box, unless they are willing to take the risk of one of their players being put in one.