Top Shelf: Ovechkin bringing excitement to Caps, Hart race

3:21 PM, Apr 18, 2013   |    comments
  • Share
  • Print
  • - A A A +

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It was only a few months ago when everybody was talking about the decline of Alex Ovechkin and whether he would ever get back to being one of the best players in the world.

Back in February, when things weren't going well for the Washington Capitals or their superstar winger, it seemed like the two-time Hart Trophy winner was a mere shadow of his former self.

To say Ovechkin has won some people back in recent weeks would be a huge understatement.

In the span of a month, Ovechkin has not only rebuilt his image as one of hockey's premier talents, but also inserted his name in the middle of the NHL's MVP race, something that seemed highly unlikely when Washington was off to a dismal 2-8-1 start to the season.

A little over a month ago, the Capitals sat 14th in the Eastern Conference and it appeared Washington was on its way to missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07, when Ovechkin was in his second season as an NHLer.

Back then it seemed like everybody had a theory about what had gone wrong with Ovechkin. Maybe he couldn't play in new head coach Adam Oates' system or perhaps he had become too predictable and was making things easy for opposing defensemen, who once trembled in fear at the prospect of covering No. 8.

And it wasn't just the fact that Ovechkin only had 10 goals through the first 27 games of this season that troubled his critics. The Russian sniper also was coming off the two lowest goal totals of his career, scoring 32 times in 2010-11 and adding 38 markers last season. While those numbers are excellent for most NHL forwards, they aren't so great for a guy like Ovechkin, who averaged nearly 54 goals per season in his first five NHL campaigns.

All Ovi has done in his last 16 games is restore his standing as the NHL's most dangerous goal-scorer, a title he seemed to have relinquished to Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos in recent years. Ovechkin has scored 18 times in his last 16 trips to the ice, giving him 28 goals on the year, one more than Stamkos. More importantly, the Caps have flourished during their star winger's scoring binge, going 13-2-1 in their last 16 games to build a four-point lead over Winnipeg for first place in the Southeast Division.

Stamkos still could wind up with his third Rocket Richard Trophy this season, but Ovechkin has bigger things on his mind, like a third Hart Trophy, or even better, his first Stanley Cup. After all, Washington enters Thursday's game in Ottawa with an eight-game winning streak and the Caps hope they're getting hot at just the right time to make some noise in this year's playoffs.

Speaking of the postseason, Ovechkin still has plenty to prove in the NHL's annual tournament and no amount of personal hardware is going to make up for Washington's lack of playoff success during the Ovi era. Although the Capitals have made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, the club hasn't moved past the second round since making its only Stanley Cup Finals appearance back in the spring of 1998.

Before he gets a chance to help Washington chase down its first championship, however, Ovechkin has an opportunity to add another Hart to his mantle. At the very least, he's made a race out of it since Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby missed the last few weeks with a broken jaw.

Despite sitting out all of April, Crosby is still leading the NHL in points, and with Pittsburgh cruising to the No. 1 seed in the East it would still make a whole lot of sense to give Sid the Kid the Hart Trophy. Chicago forward Jonathan Toews and even Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky are also solid MVP candidates, but Ovechkin will win the award going away if he's able to keep up his pace from the last several weeks.

For Ovechkin, another MVP would have to feel like validation after having every aspect of his game and character called into question in recent years. Just because he didn't say much to defend himself from some of the worst accusations people assumed that he either was clueless as to how he could get back to being his old dominant self, or even worse, that he didn't even care if he did.

As usual, Ovechkin managed to answer those critics on the ice. The fact that it only took a few weeks of playing like an MVP to get into the actual Hart Trophy race is nothing short of amazing.

Plain and simple, the sport of hockey is much more exciting when No. 8 is playing up to his potential. Ovechkin has reminded us of that over the last month and Washington hopes he'll keep on refreshing our memories deep into the spring.

The Sports Network

Most Watched Videos