Picking Splinters: Weighing the Ovi Factor

There’s a bit of a cliché among coaches when it comes to injuries. Often when their star player goes down, they’ll drop this gem: “We’re going to learn a lot about our team.” The statement is more a challenge to still-healthy than preparation for any academic endeavor, but let’s assume that there is something to glean from a team’s performance sans star player. What can we take away from the Caps’ time without Alex Ovechkin?

If you’re Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau, you’d like to see someone step in to replace the presumed drop in goal scoring without the league’s top goal scorer in the lineup. So, I’m sure he’d be thrilled to know that his team’s goals per game average actually slightly increased (3.66 goals per game from 3.64) in the six games without Ovechkin compared to the first 14 with him healthy. Eight different Capitals recorded multiple goals without the Great Eight in the lineup, but no one was hotter than Tomas Fleischmann.

Flash, or as I like to call him, the Margarine Man, proved a wonderful substitute for Ovechkin’s goal scoring, notching a team-best five goals during Ovi’s absence. Getting a late start on the season due to a blood clot in his leg, Fleischmann may have had the advantage of fresh legs during the packed early portion of the schedule, condensed due to the Olympic layoff in February, but the scoring spurt points to something more welcoming.

As a second-round, European-born draft pick by the Detroit Red Wings, we should have known that Fleischmann had a plethora of talent waiting to be unlocked. After all, players in that mold have kept the Wings flush with stars year after year. At 25, Fleischmann may be peaking. He’s already more than a third of the way towards topping his career-best for goals, 19, set last season, and has shown no hesitancy to play the body, crash the net and chase the puck into corners. Already owning a smooth skating stride and a quick set of hands, Flash could be the complete package this season, giving the Caps a much-needed secondary scoring threat to pick up the slack when Ovi and Alexander Semin are smothered in the playoffs.

Also of note has been wily center Mathieu Perreault, a 21-year-old call-up, who has distinguished himself with some crafty play-making (2 G, 3 A) that’s sparked production from the bottom two lines.

But that’s just the offensive end. As a coach lacking his top player, you’re going to tell the media scrum that you need your team to double down its defensive efforts. Again, good news.

The Caps’ goals-against average dropped slightly from 3.07 with Ovechkin to a flat 3 without him. That’s still too high for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, but it’s a pleasant trend to see. In fact, the team’s shots on goal differential did increase drastically with Ovi out. Prior to his injury the Caps had out shot their opponents 449-441. In the six games without him, that margin rose to 196-173, which is highly impressive considering Ovechkin wracks up more shots, by far, than anyone in the NHL.

Shots on your opponent’s goal may not seem like a defensive statistic, but it is. In one way, shots are a sign of puck possession. You can’t shoot the puck if you don’t have it and, if you’re shooting, you’re likely in your opponent’s zone. If you have the puck in your opponent’s zone, they don’t have it in yours, hence good defense by way of good offense.

And speaking of good offense, the last big question Boudreau had to address with Ovechkin out was who to play in his spot on the power play. The coach shifted veteran center Brendan Morrison into the top unit at the point and saw immediate dividends. The power play scored on six of 14 chances, compared to just 21 percent before Ovi went down. What did drop significantly, however, was the number of power play opportunities the Caps enjoyed each game, slipping from 4.9 before to 2.3. The conclusion to draw there? Ovechkin is such a slippery skater and moves so fast that he puts defenders out of position, forcing them to take penalties to avoid dangerous goal-scoring situations. In some ways, he’s just irreplaceable.