Puck Daddy - NHL

With 42 games remaining in the regular season for the Washington Capitals, Alex Ovechkin(notes) is on pace to score less than 30 goals.

It's hard to imagine he won't, considering he's only had one streak of goals in three or more games this season and had five of them in 2009-10. Then again, it's hard to imagine a player whose career goals-per-game average is 0.65 currently averaging 0.35 GPG.

There's been a lot written about Ovechkin's numbers this season. Some of it focuses on the psychological effects of the Capitals' playoff disappointment or Russia's Olympic embarrassment, which would seem to motivate more than depress a competitor.

But others have targeted specific changes in Ovechkin's game and the way others defend him. Here are some of the better theories offered recently about Ovechkin's below-average goal-scoring totals.

1. He's Modulated His Game After Multiple Suspensions Last Season

The great Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated was one of those who lend credence to this theory, in a recent fact/myth article about Ovechkin's struggles:

Not to go all Dr. Phil on you, but this strikes On The Fly as getting warmer. Ovechkin asserts, "I don't think the suspension has affected me at all," but [Coach Bruce] Boudreau is less sure.

"I think he changed the way he played after the suspension," Boudreau said. "Even last year. He was so worried about it, he didn't play with reckless abandon. He hated -- and I'm sure he still does -- the media being negative about him because he's not a dirty player. He tries not to be. He's just bigger and stronger than most people. But there was a definite change. He's very more careful."

Boudreau mentions the media here, but it's not as if he's not culpable for part of that behavior change, offering public comments about whether Ovechkin should "pick his spots a little better" on open-ice hits. As a result, the most memorable check he's thrown in the last year was in Olympic competition.

2. Defenses Have Figured Him Out, and He Hasn't Changed

Teams like the Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers (and Mike Babcock in the Olympics) have found ways to take away Ovechkin's space and shooting lanes in recent years, and now there's a book on how to slow the Russian Machine. Tarik El-Bashir from the Washington Post explained in a Monday column:

There are many factors contributing to the 25-year-old's dramatic dip in goals, but the most obvious one is how opposing teams are going about shutting him down, and how little he's adjusted in response.

Ovechkin is being smothered like never before, particularly when he attempts to carry the puck into the offensive zone. Defensemen are brashly stepping up on him, while at the same time, one or more forwards are sneakily applying pressure from behind. As a result, when Ovechkin cuts from the outside to a more prime scoring area, opponents strip the puck from him.

... In addition to dealing with backchecking forwards, Ovechkin has been encumbered by the more aggressive manner in which defensemen are contesting him. Blue-liners are playing much closer to him, which is giving him less space to get off his shot. They're also keeping their skates closer together and the blade of their stick perpendicular, which has cut off his trademark, between-the-opponent's-legs shot that has, in the past, sailed right past screened goaltenders.

One hates to bring one into the other's conversation, but it's a valid point here: Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins modulated his offensive game into one that's equal parts net presence and offensive sniping. Ovechkin is trying old tricks against teams that have already seen how the magic happens.

3. He's Saving Himself

The previous two theories are, we believe, valid ones. (Add in that he's carrying more weight this season than in the past as a factor, too.) But they're largely negative factors regarding his game; what if he's simply pacing himself?

From Elliotte Friedman's CBC Sports column this week:

Jim Rutherford -- a huge fan of Alexander Ovechkin's -- believes Ovechkin is making a conscious effort to save himself for the playoffs. The Great 8 denies it, but Rutherford isn't the only one who feels that way. One of the reasons I think the Hurricane GM may be right: when asked about his lower goal totals, the Russian forward said, "It can change like that" and snapped his fingers. It would be foolish to write him off.

Yes, based on his NHL career, it would. But more to Rutherford's point: If Ovechkin scores 30 instead of 50 but leads the Washington Capitals to the conference finals, these theories will be academic but immaterial.

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