Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Ovechkin is Playing Great Hockey

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The Great Eight has only one goal in his last 6 games. If you’re worried, don’t be.

The statistics tell part of the story, so let’s start there. Here are some important numbers: 31 goals (on pace for 62 this season), and 225 shots on goal (on pace for 450). Statistical aberrations happen, and sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s “puck luck.” For example, in five games from December 10th through 20th, Ovi scored 7 goals on 23 shots, for a ridiculous shooting percentage of 30.4. By contrast, in five games from December 27th to now, he scored only one goal on a staggering 42 shots–2.3%.

Here are some more important numbers: Ovi’s career average SH% is in the mid-12s, and this season it’s still in the high 13s. He has finished seasons as high as 14.6%, but as low as 8.7%. If we play with these numbers a little bit, we can set some expectations for the rest of the season. We can probably expect 450 shots. Ovi has put as many as 528 pucks on net in a full season, and averages a little bit better than 5 shots a game over his career. If the SOGs stay steady and he shoots at his career average for the rest of the season, Ovechkin will finish the year with about 59 goals. If he shoots at his lowest season-long rate from here forward, he’ll still wind up with 51. What if he shoots so well for the rest of the year that his SH% at the end of the year matches his season-long high? Sixty-six goals. (Keep in mind that no one but him has hit 65 after the ‘04-‘05 lockout, and only one other guy has even scored 60.)

Here is an unimportant number that you should ignore and not worry about: Ovi’s +/- for the season so far. It would be too simplistic to call it an irrelevant stat, but if I’m evaluating a player, that’s literally the least important number I’m looking at. Plus-minus has been roundly criticized in hockey analysis over the past 15 years. If you care to know more about why I don’t care about this figure, check out: this, which was written by some rando I found after Googling “why is plus-minus useless,” and this, which was written more recently by Neil Greenberg, an insightful and talented stat geek at the Post. And definitely check out this, where Russian Machine Never Breaks takes on an Ovi-basher who cited his +/- (spoiler alert: RMNB wins). In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I am dead last in my fantasy hockey league in plus-minus.

Above, I mentioned that the stats tell part of the story, but we can’t stop there. Special teams, Oates’ system, and current events are all playing a significant, but unquantifiable, role in Ovi’s performance.

The power play remains potent, and Ovi remains its primary weapon. Teams have tried to adjust, and it doesn’t click every night, but special teams frequently decide our games. It’s possible that we will see his scoring slow because teams sell out to stop him when they’re shorthanded. When teams have tried, they usually have been burned by Brouwer, Johansson, Ward, Carlson, Backstrom, et al. Eight different players have scored multiple PPGs so far this season for the Caps. As long as we can make teams pay from locations other than the left circle, Ovi will continue to be a factor, and as long as he continues to be a factor, the power play will convert.

Head Coach Adam Oates’ system was a hot topic during the Caps’ horrid start last season, but we haven’t heard much about it since. The system has been integral to Ovi’s resurgence, possibly for one major reason: Oates calls for the finisher of a play to be set up so that he can shoot the puck when he gets it. Remember watching Number 8 in red fly down the left side into the offensive zone and make magic happen? Sure, but after defenders started adjusting, we saw a lot of attempted dance moves at the blueline that resulted in turnovers, which resulted in no zone time and no shots on goal. The highlights are different now. I just took a few minutes to watch all 31 goals; I didn’t use a stopwatch, but I would be surprised if he had the puck on his tape for more than 30 seconds through the whole montage. He’s almost always scoring on a one-timer after a cycle, after someone else has carried it into the zone and found him open, or–get this–on a rebound! The system is designed to let Ovi shoot, and, as noted above, it’s working.

The Winter Games are coming up, and they’re in Russia. Last time, in Vancouver, the Canadians beat the Russians, and some have labeled the Olympic loss as the beginning of Ovechkin’s temporary dip in production. We know our boy is about as pumped as any athlete has ever been for anything, but we don’t know what’s going to happen in Sochi or how that might affect his NHL performance, if at all. I’m really looking forward to seeing how that plays out; I can’t wait. But it’s a footnote compared to the stats, the power play, and the system-generated shot totals, which tell us that Alex Ovechkin is still playing very, very well.

In a few minutes, we will take on the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Ovi will score or he won’t. Regardless, the smart money has him finishing the season with more trophies.

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Tags: Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals

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