Alex Ovechkin missed just four of 342 games at the start of his NHL career, and injuries kept him from participating in just two of those four games. But the Caps’ superstar left wing suffered an upper body strain in Sunday’s 5-4 overtime loss to Columbus. He will not play on Wednesday when Washington opens a two-game road trip against the Devils in New Jersey. Ovechkin’s status is listed as “week-to-week.”
“Obviously we’d like him to be better sooner than later,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, “but we want to make sure he’s healthy. It has happened to a lot of other great players on great teams this year. That’s his first time in his career, so hopefully he’ll be out no more than two weeks.”
The Capitals, off to a strong start and owning a healthy lead in the Southeast Division standings, will now play without the league’s leading scorer and the leader in ice time among all NHL forwards for each of the last two seasons. Ovechkin has averaged 23 minutes a night consistently since the start of the 2007-08 season, and the Caps will now have to spread those minutes amongst a dozen forwards.
Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin are the team’s two most frequently skated wingers beyond Ovechkin, but Boudreau knows he can’t pile too much on their respective plates.
“They will and they won’t [get more minutes],” says Boudreau of Laich and Semin. “They play 20 minutes a game now; they’re not going to play 25.
“We’ll move it around a little bit and we’ll probably play four lines more. We want to prove that we’re a good hockey club. Alex being gone gives us the opportunity to prove that.”
The Capitals are in a much better position to withstand the loss of Ovechkin than they were in seasons past. Washington has some scoring depth and is one of the most prolific offensive teams in the league. Still, Ovechkin has averaged a goal a game and had a hand in nearly half the team’s scoring this season until he was injured.
“Offensively you can’t rely on one guy all the time,” states Boudreau. “But you’re taking a full goal a game out of your lineup. So there’s no getting around the fact that we’re going to miss him. He is the best in the world.”
For Ovechkin’s teammates, it’s important to remember that they don’t have to replace the goal per game that he has contributed to the team’s attack thus far. Preventing a goal or so per game works out to the same equation and has the same effect.
After surrendering an average of 3.6 goals per game in the season’s first five games, the Caps had allowed an average of just 2.3 per games during the life of their recently ended six-game winning streak. Washington has permitted nine goals in its last two games, a pair of overtime defeats.
“You don’t have to find someone to put another one in,” says right wing Mike Knuble. “You can make up the difference in goals against. It will be a good challenge. I guess we’ll find out in a week what we’re made of. It’s probably good for our group anyway to discover that fact, and not have to wait until March or April when it gets down to crunch time.”
Caps captain Chris Clark concurs with Knuble.
“If we play a little bit better defensively and give up one or two goals a game,” begins Clark, “which is realistic and it’s something that I think most teams strive for. There have been games where he hasn’t scored and we’ve won. But he does take a lot of the presence on the ice. He takes a lot of the focus. It’s something where I think a lot of guys will be able to step up around him.”
The Caps have never had to do without Ovechkin for an extended period of time. This is a chance for the team to learn something about itself.
“It’s a lot of minutes,” observes veteran center Brendan Morrison. “He eats up a lot of time and deservedly so. You look at [his power play] minutes as well, so other guys are going to get opportunities on the [power play].
“There is no denying it’s a huge loss. But sometimes these things are blessings in disguise. It forces teams to come together. It forces teams to maybe alter their style of play a bit, whereas before you could get away with it. The onus is on the guys in the room here now to go out and prove that, ‘Hey, listen. We can still win games when our best player is not in the lineup.’”
“You’re never going to fully fill in the absence,” admits Knuble, “but we can all chip in and play defensively better. That’s exactly what we’ve got to do. It’s a good wakeup call anyway. With the amount of goals we’ve been scoring, it has kind of bailed us out. But it’s a good time to wake up and play better defensively. And you go to New Jersey, you’ve got to play a strong defensive game.”
The always stingy Devils have surrendered just nine goals in their last six games. New Jersey has been idle since Saturday when it won a 2-1 shootout decision from the Lightning in Tampa Bay to finish October at 8-4.
New Jersey is in third place in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division standings. The Devils have been perfect (7-0) on the road this season, but they have won just one of five (1-4) home games to date in 2009-10.
The Devils have played four of their last five games on the road and have won five of their last six overall. New Jersey has yet to score more than four goals in any game this season. It has scored exactly four goals twice.
After scoring at least one power play goal in each of their first four games this season, the Devils have gone 2-for-27 (7.4%) with the extra man since. In three of their last five games, the Devils have drawn exactly one power play opportunity.
The Devils have been without one of their own top players for the entire season to date, but left wing Patrik Elias could return to the New Jersey lineup for Wednesday’s night game with Washington. Elias underwent off-season hip and groin surgery.
New Jersey will also be without defenseman Johnny Oduya, who is sidelined with a lower body injury. The Devils have been without veteran winger Jay Pandolfo and defenseman Paul Martin for the last three games. Both Pandolfo and Martin are expected to miss 4-6 weeks.