Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin carried his team to the playoffs with 22 goals in his last 23 games, which also helped him build an impressive resume for the Hart Trophy. He entered the playoffs playing his best hockey in quite some time.
But to the surprise of many, the Capitals captain has made a very small impact offensively in his team's first-round series with the New York Rangers.
Since his goal in Washington's 3-1 victory to open the series, Ovechkin has tallied just one point in the last three games, including two scoreless efforts in the last two matchups at Madison Square Garden (both Capitals losses).
One of the main reasons why Ovechkin has struggled offensively in this series is his lack of aggressiveness in the attacking zone. In the last two games, he has combined for just three shots on goal, which is an unacceptable amount for someone of his importance.
In the final 23 games of the regular season, Ovechkin recorded fewer than four shots on goal just four times. He was looking for his offense by using his great speed to enter the attacking zone, forcing defensemen to back off of him and then unleashing his powerful, accurate wrist shot at opposing goaltenders.
Ovechkin hasn't been able to rush up ice and put himself in one-on-one battles with defensemen because the Rangers have not turned the puck over a lot. The Rangers have just 31 giveaways in the first four games of this series (second-fewest of all playoff teams), and they protect the puck very well. This has prevented him from creating offense in transition.
To get possession of the puck and help the Capitals create some sustained pressure in the Rangers' zone, Ovechkin needs to give a better effort defensively and battle for pucks along the boards. He has great size and strength, but he's not using those attributes to turn good defense into offense on a consistent basis.
Ovechkin also hasn't received much help from top-line center Nicklas Backstrom, whose fantastic vision and passing skills help create a lot of scoring opportunities for the team captain. Backstrom has not played well in this series with just two points and eight total shots in four games.
But as poorly as Ovechkin has played offensively, some credit must be given to Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who is once again a Vezina Trophy finalist after winning the award last season.
Since Ovechkin scores so many goals from the left faceoff circle, a goaltender who doesn't allow many goals stick-side has the best chance to prevent the Capitals star from lighting the lamp. John Buccigross of ESPN recently tweeted a great graphic of where Ovechkin normally scores, and to no one's surprise, the stick-side area was in red.
Since so many of Ovechkin's stick-side goals have come on the power play, the Rangers have made a strong effort to eliminate his time and space on the left faceoff dot when the Capitals have the man advantage. New York's penalty killers are also doing a great job of getting in the shooting lanes so Ovechkin has nowhere to put the puck.
This was all on display in the Capitals' power play in the final two minutes of Game 3 when they needed a goal to force overtime. The Rangers prevented the Capitals from getting a single shot on net, and Ovechkin wasn't able to do anything at the left faceoff dot.
This kind of defensive brilliance can limit the effectiveness of a player as talented as Ovechkin.
At even strength, Rangers head coach John Tortorella is doing his best to match up his top defense pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh against Ovechkin as much as possible. With the advantage of having the last change as the home team, Tortorella played the matchup battle to perfection in Games 3 and 4.
This tweet sums up the exceptional defensive performance that Girardi and McDonagh gave their team in the last two games, and they will need this success versus Ovechkin to continue in Game 5, when the Capitals will have the last change.
Since the Capitals will be without veteran forward Martin Erat in Game 5 because of an injury (per Mike Vogel of Capitals.com), the club's top-six forwards, including Ovechkin and Backstrom, must contribute offensively to beat a Rangers team that's full of confidence after erasing a 0-2 series deficit.
In the final three matchups of these two teams' second-round series last year, Ovechkin scored only one goal and the Capitals were eliminated in Game 7.
To avoid a repeat scenario and help his team take control of the series by winning the crucial fifth game, Ovechkin needs to be more aggressive in the attacking zone and let his natural talent take over.
If starting goaltender Braden Holtby plays like he did in the last two games at Madison Square Garden, the Capitals will need Ovechkin's line to produce offensively, or summertime will be coming to Washington in the near future.