Notes on Alexander Ovechkin's return to greatness, defending Rick Nash, cautiously praising Brian Elliott, Craig Anderson and Cory Schneider as well as the Canucks' sudden depth down the middle.
IT'S GREAT TO BE BACK
Alexander Ovechin scored again last night, because that's what he does now, finding the net in 10 of the last 12 games.
As he's now tied with Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos for the league's goal-scoring lead, Ovechkin is considered "back". Maybe not the superstar who scored 65 goals in 2007-2008, but not the slug who scored a mere 70 goals (ranking fifth in the league) over the past two seasons.
Thing is, aside from a slow start (two goals, one assist, minus-3 in the first eight games) to this season, Ovechkin has been doing a lot more right than wrong. That's not a reference to his shift to right wing under new head coach Adam Oates, though that position adjustment could help explain some of his early woes.
When Ovechkin broke through for a hat trick on February 23 against New Jersey, I noted that he had just wrapped up an 11-game span in which he registered 55 shots on goal. By way of comparison, he currently leads the league (minimum 20 GP) with an average of 4.5 shots on goal per game, so five per game isn't the mark of someone just floating through the league.
At his career peak, Ovechkin led the league with 6.7 shots on goal per game (528 in 79 games) during the 2008-2009 season. That he's not at that level now isn't so outrageous because no one else is even close. Since 2000-2001, Ovechkin is the only player in the league to average five shots on goal per game for a full season and he's done it four times, but that should make it clear just how far out of the realm of reasonable expectations it is to think that Ovechkin (or anyone else) could put up 6.7 shots per game over a full season again.
Anyway, as recently as a month ago, Ovechkin was taking heat after a weekend in which he was a combined minus-5 in back-to-back losses to the Islanders and Rangers and it was only exacerbated by Sidney Crosby putting up five assists against the Islanders the same day that Ovechkin was taking a minus-3 against the Rangers (because, till the end of time, anything these two players do must be viewed in comparison to the other).
In the last 34 games, Ovechkin has 24 goals, 17 assists and is plus-5. His shooting percentage this season (14.6%) is the highest of his career, so regression is poised to catch up to him, but for any and all that were prepared to bury the career of the Capitals' 27-year-old franchise player, maybe just set those shovels down for a while.
NASH IN NEW YORK
The player who is second to Ovechkin in shots on goal per game this season, at 4.2 per game (146 in 35 games) is New York Rangers RW Rick Nash.
With the Rangers failing to meet preseason expectations and Nash's former team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, exceeding expectations with an unanticipated push for a playoff spot, it's been popular to look at last summer's trade between the teams as the catalyst for their current fortunes.
It's difficult to pin the Rangers' troubles on Nash, though, as he has 17 goals, 18 assists and a plus-15 rating in 35 games. He's one of eight players to have at least 15 goals and a plus-15 rating this season and the rest of them are with much more successful teams.
None of this changes the fact that the Rangers have struggled and the Blue Jackets have thrive, relative to expectations, but the blame shouldn't fall on Nash. The Blue Jackets' surge is due, in large part, to Sergei Bobrovsky providing a massive upgrade in goal. Even with a worse shot differential (minus-3.3 per game this year compared to minus-1.0 per game last year), the Blue Jackets are getting much better results and they can thank Bobrovsky's .930 save percentage for a large part of that difference.
In the Rangers' case, while Nash and centre Derek Stepan have been productive, the same couldn't be said for Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik (who is obviously a bigger part of the plans in Columbus now), who didn't score anywhere near typical levels this season.
When Brian Elliott joined the St. Louis Blues as a backup goaltender last season, he was locked in a battle (with Ben Bishop) just to make the team. Then, Elliott not only made the team but, sharing time with Jaroslav Halak, led the league with a 1.56 goals against average and .940 save percentage.
Coming off a season in which he posted an .893 save percentage, Elliott's success was highly unlikely, but it earned the 28-year-old a two-year contract, worth $3.6-million, with the Blues.
When this season started, though, Elliott was getting lit up. In five appearances between February 5 and March 3, he allowed 22 goals (6.20 GAA, .805 SV%), earning a trip to the AHL. A couple of solid starts (1.51 GAA, .946 SV%) later, Halak was hurt and the Blues brought Elliott back.
Since his return, Elliott has won four straight, posting a 1.07 goals against average and .960 save percentage, recording back-to-back shutouts in his last two starts, stabilizing the last line of defence for a Blues team that has allowed a league-low 24.3 shots on goal per game, but has struggled to get consistent goaltending all season.
Once traded for Elliott, Ottawa Senators G Craig Anderson returned from six weeks on the injured list with a sprained ankle to play back-to-back games in Tampa Bay and Florida. Unfortunately, Anderson stopped 36 of 41 shots (.878 SV%) in two losses, possibly the start of regression that was long due for a goaltender with a .915 career save percentage.
When he was hurt, Anderson had a .952 save percentage in his first 15 games of the season, a mark that is unsustainable (Elliott set the save percentage mark last year) over a large sample, though maybe one that is more reasonable to hold close to through an injury-shortened, lockout-shortened season.
Nevertheless, now that the Senators have traded Ben Bishop to Tampa Bay, they boast a goaltending tandem of Anderson and Robin Lehner that, collectively has a .941 save percentage. It's why the Senators were ranked higher than most expected in this week's Power Rankings.
If that spectacular goaltending can't hold, then they will fade because the Senators are allowing 32.4 shots against per game, which ranks 28th in the league.
When the season started, the Vancouver Canucks still had Roberto Luongo on their roster, but expectations far and wide were that 27-year-old Cory Schneider would take the reins as Vancouver's starter.
Luongo started strong (.943 SV% in his first seven appearances) while Schneider couldn't get in a groove, posting a mediocre .908 save percentage in his first 10 appearances but as Luongo's play has suffered -- his .904 save percentage is a career-low -- he's started about a game per week over the last six weeks and Schneider has risen to the starter's role. Since the beginning of March, Schneider is 10-3-2 with a 1.62 goals against average and .943 save percentage.
Just as Schneider was better than he showed early in the year, he's not necessarily going to keep playing at this level, but he's one of two goaltenders to have a career save percentage over .925 with at least 50 games played.
One more promising note for the Canucks is that they got Ryan Kesler back from his latest injury. Coming just after acquiring Derek Roy from the Dallas Stars, the Canucks are suddenly deep down the middle after being undermanned in that position for most of the season.
While Roy's offensive production hasn't been great this season, he had taken on a more difficult role in Dallas, starting more shifts in the defensive zone and that kind of two-way ability can help the Canucks ease Kesler back into the lineup.
In Kesler's first game back, for example, Roy spent most of the night matched up against Phoenix's top line of Martin Hanzal, Radim Vrbata and Shane Doan. Having another centre on hand that can face those lines is a decided plus for the Canucks and will give them more options even when they go on the road and don't get to pick and choose their matchups.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.