Kings' challenge: stopping Ovechkin
Alex Ovechkin scored another goal in his last game.
This is not exactly earth-shattering news. The dynamic forward for the Washington Capitals is tied for the NHL lead in goals with Marian Gaborik of the New York Rangers with 26 in 32 games, which means he's on pace to score 60 goals this season. In just 4½ NHL seasons, the 24-year-old Ovechkin already has 245 goals, so it's no surprise that for the past two seasons he's been the recipient of the NHL's Maurice Rocket Richard Award as the league's goal-scoring leader.
Ovechkin and the Capitals will be in L.A. on Saturday afternoon to play the Kings, and he is red-hot coming into Staples Center with 12 points in his last five games.
The Kings finally stopped a four-game losing streak, and five losses in their last six, with a 5-2 win Thursday in Minnesota. But this is obviously not a team that's brimming with confidence these days.
Now the Kings return home for eight of their next nine games and the opportunity to get their season back on track, but they must start that process with the ominous challenge of trying to stop Mr. Ovechkin from doing what he does better than anyone else in the NHL.
The question is, how?
For Kings veteran defenseman Sean O'Donnell, the strategy begins with keeping the puck deep in the Capitals' zone as much as possible.
"It's like football," explained O'Donnell. "The more you run the ball the more time you're taking off the clock and the less their offense is out there. It's the same kind of thing. We want to get it in deep, cycle it, frustrate him to the point where he's covering our point men all the time because the play's down low."
The Kings are going to have to be very vigilant as far as their positional play is concerned, making sure that when they are in the their offensive zone, one forward stays high, in between the net and the blue line, supporting the Kings' defensemen in case of a turnover and a fast break by the Capitals and Ovechkin, in particular.
"It's critical that you don't leave your defensemen out there to get exposed in one-on-one situations." Kings coach Terry Murray said. "You need that support."
But even if that strategy succeeds, there's no guarantee that Ovechkin can be stopped or even contained.
"You're not going to eliminate scoring chances and take away his game." Murray continued. "He's a great individual, powerful, and has that speed. He's dynamic out there."
Ovechkin is one of those special players who can score virtually anywhere inside an opponent's offensive zone. He has the skating speed to go around a defender, but at 6-2 and 225 pounds he's also big, strong and mean enough to go through the defender. In fact, at times it seems that when Ovechkin has the choice between finesse and brute force, he often opts for the latter, and it has cost him. He missed six games this season with a shoulder injury that he sustained in a collision and another two games when he was suspended for what the league determined was an illegal hit.
Ovechkin is blessed with the soft hands that all natural goal scorers possess, but he also has the ability to slap a pass from a teammate on net with devastating accuracy. And then there's that wrist shot.
"The release is sick," Kings veteran forward Ryan Smyth said. "I don't think I've ever seen a shot like that."
And Smyth has been around long enough to have played against one of the greatest goal scorers, with one of the great releases, in the history of the game: Brett Hull, who was just recently inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame with 741 goals, third on the all-time list.
"The thing about Hully," Smyth said, "was that his was a more standing release, whereas Ovechkin will release in stride."
What Smyth means is that Hull would hover in the high slot above the goal, seeming to get lost or overlooked by defenders as he lurked around, searching for a seam or soft spot in the defense, just waiting for the puck to come to him. Once it did, it was in the net after a deadly one-timer or a flick of the wrists.
Ovechkin isn't nearly as subtle. He flies into the zone, arms and legs pumping as he barrels toward the net, able to fire the puck at any instant. If he's not in what appears to be the optimum position to shoot the puck, shifting his weight and utilizing the big muscles of his legs and back, it doesn't matter, because his wrists and forearms are so strong and his accuracy is remarkable.
Limiting his time and space is really critical, no question, says O'Donnell. But it's hard because he's so fast, you have to respect that and maybe back off a little bit. People always wonder: Why does this guy get so much room out there? It's because if you try to play too tight to him, he can blow right by you and make you look silly. You want to get in his face, but not so tight that he can get a step on you. It's a fine line.
And of course, like all great goal scorers, once Ovechkin shoots the puck, it just seems to find the back of the net. Even if the goalie looks to be in the right position to make the save, it somehow finds a way to get through off a glove or a pad or a minuscule gap in the goaltender's gear.
This much is certain: The fans who are lucky enough to be at the game and watch this guy in person are in for a treat. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the goalie who is likely to face Ovechkin come Saturday afternoon.
"I think," said Jonathan Quick earlier this week, "I'm going to try and get to church before that game."