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Thursday, March 22, 2012
5 Things: Alex Ovechkin stepping it up

By Scott Burnside

1. A-Lightning Rod:Alexander Ovechkin has been a lightning rod for criticism over the past couple of seasons, especially this season, as the Washington Capitalshave listed aimlessly for much of the season and are in the unusual position of battling for a playoff berth. Ovechkin's production has been down and his leadership skills have been called into question as captain of a team that has lacked a spark for long periods. Much of that criticism has been fair, but it’s also fair to point out that recently, when his team has needed the old Ovechkin most, the Caps captain has responded. Heading into Thursday’s important tilt with the Philadelphia Flyers, Ovechkin ranks third in goals scored since Dec. 15 with 23. Only NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin and goal-scoring leader Steven Stamkos have scored more over that period.

In his past seven games, Ovechkin has six goals and an assist as the Caps continue to hold down eighth place in the Eastern Conference (Buffalo is now tied in points, but the Caps have a game in hand).

Not only is he producing, but Ovechkin is producing in a manner that is reminiscent of his play of a few years back, when he was as dynamic a player as there was in the NHL. He has scored off the rush a number of times in recent games, blasting pucks past goaltenders.

“I think that’s fair. I think that’s an accurate observation,” GM George McPhee told ESPN.com when asked if he’d seen more of the old Ovechkin in recent days.

“He’s playing like the guy we’ve known for a long time,” he said.

The veteran GM has no real answer for the sudden uptick in production other than to note that a player’s career rarely follows a straight line.

“He hasn’t changed his approach,” McPhee said.

The problem for the Caps moving forward might not be the captain but the rest of the guys wearing the Caps jersey. With Nicklas Backstrom still sidelined after taking an elbow to the jaw from Rene Bourque, there has been a dearth of secondary scoring. Ovechkin’s 32 goals lead the Caps, but there’s a significant drop-off to Alexander Semin and Troy Brouwer, who are tied for second with 18 goals. Backstrom hasn’t played since Jan. 3 and is still third among all Caps forwards in point production.

“Yeah, we’re going to need some scoring. It can’t come from one or two people all the time,” McPhee acknowledged.

2. Varlamov, as in paying off: Speaking of the Caps, remember when everyone was making fun of Colorado GM Greg Sherman after he traded a first- and second-round pick for Semyon Varlamov, who was threatening to bolt for the Kontinental Hockey League because his stock had fallen so dramatically with the Caps?

Remember the suggestions that the Avs might be so bad that the first-round pick might actually end up being a lottery pick?
No? Didn’t think so.

With fewer than 10 games to play in the regular season, both Colorado and Washington are fighting for their playoff lives.

But if the Avs do hang on -- they are currently in seventh place -- it will be in large part to Varlamov’s contributions.

If the Caps do not, it will be due in large part to the lack of consistent goaltending.

As of Wednesday, the Avs were 12th overall in goals allowed per game. The Caps ranked 22nd.

With his overtime win over Calgary on Tuesday, Varlamov stretched his personal winning streak to five games. He is 10-2-0 with a 1.48 GAA and .951 save percentage in his past 12 starts.

His 10 wins in the past month lead all NHL netminders and his four shutouts this season have all come on the road. Varlamov has been unbelievable is 8-0 in the shootout, allowing two goals on 24 attempts, a record that in the end might mean the difference between an invitation to the postseason dance or not.

Head coach Joe Sacco isn’t a goaltending coach, so he doesn’t profess to understand any technical changes in Varlamov’s game, but he does know there’s been a real growth in Varlamov’s confidence and hence his role with the team.

“To me what I’ve seen is more of a take-charge kind of attitude,” Sacco told ESPN.com shortly before the Avs jetted off for a crucial matchup at Phoenix on Thursday night. “He just appears more confident. I think he feels that he fits in more than he did."

That kind of confidence is contagious, especially for a young team whose players don’t have much experience with the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a playoff race.

“That allows our team to go out and play our game, to play to our own identity,” which is based on speed and energy, Sacco said.

3. You are like a Hurricane:Shssssshhhh, don’t look now, but the Carolina Hurricanes have shouldered their way back into the playoff discussion in the Eastern Conference. Yes, the Canes have their work cut out for them given that they’re five points out of eighth with eight games to go and three teams to jump over. But the fact this team is even part of the discussion is a testament to the impact rookie head coach Kirk Muller has had in this young squad, and the drive of guys like captain Eric Staal, who has kept the playoff dream percolating for a team long left for dead.

“I don’t think the hockey world knows how good (Staal) is playing,” Muller told ESPN.com Thursday before the Hurricanes headed off to Columbus for a game there Friday night.

Indeed, the Hurricanes are the ultimate under-the-radar team, riding a four-game winning streak and having gone 19-10-9 since Christmas, including a sterling 12-3-4 record at home.

Staal has been on a tear since the All-Star break, scoring 12 times and adding 18 assists in 23 games, including a franchise-record 11-game assist streak. He is plus-10 over that stretch after being a woeful minus-23 in the first 51 games of the season.

The playoffs might be a pipe dream -- the team’s brutal 3-15 record in overtime and the shootout, where they’re 0-for-6, will likely keep the Canes on the outside of the playoff bubble when the dust clears -- but their play certainly bodes well for the future.

Muller acknowledged that the first 10 or 15 games after he replaced Paul Maurice were a kind of in-season training camp, where he was experimenting with his roster, finding out who could do what and what roles his players could accept.

“The biggest thing was learning the personnel,” Muller said.

Regardless of how things shake down over the final eight games, Muller is already anticipating exit interviews where he will reinforce to his young squad that they need to build off this terrific run next fall at training camp.

“It doesn’t mean anything if we don’t start (next season) that way, too,” Muller said.

4. Stars filling in the holes: Dallas Starspresident Jim Lites likes to describe the process of reviving the franchise’s fortunes on and off the ice in terms of a hole in the ground.

As in, once the Stars resolved their long-standing ownership issues, they stopped digging one.

“We’re filling it in now, game to game, week to week,” Lites told ESPN.com this week.

The hole -- really a crater -- was created by a combination of previous ownership’s financial woes that led to an ownership vacuum and an on-ice product that saw fans become increasingly disenfranchised.

New owner Tom Gaglardi reassured the team of its direction under GM Joe Nieuwendykand rookie head coach Glen Gulutzan, and reassured the fan base the Stars are for real -- again.

“He’s a real guy and he’s a real hockey guy,” Lites said of his new boss.

When Lites returned to the post he held twice previously after Gaglardi took over the team late last year, the team dropped ticket prices, and with the Stars making an unexpected charge to the top of the Pacific Division, the fans have swarmed back to the previously sparsely populated American Airlines Center.

The price reduction that coincided with Gaglardi’s ratification as owner began with a Dec. 19 game versus Anaheim, and in the 22 games since, home attendance jumped almost 4,000 per game.

The past seven home games' average attendance is more than 17,000, including a franchise-record 19,099 against Chicago on March 16, which included standing-room-only tickets that were sold in suites.

“I see empty seats in my sleep. It kind of haunts you,” Lites said. “When I see the building full and going, I sleep a little better.”

There have been walk-up crowds of 4,000 as the Stars’ surprising second-half run has continued.

“Nobody does that,” Lites said.

That said, this is a team that’s still far removed from the constant sellouts that marked the franchise around the time of its only Stanley Cup run in 1999.

“It’s a lot of hard work winning fans back. They’re pretty cynical,” Lites acknowledged.

If Gulutzan can keep his squad on track, that road back to relevancy in the tough Dallas market might not be as long as some had believed.

The team sold the equivalent of 55 full season ticket packages last week and Lites hopes that through the summer there will be upward of 2,000 additional season ticketholders, numbers that would drive the Stars’ season-ticket base back toward 9,000.

“Some people thought we were never going to get it back,” Lites said.

For his part, Gaglardi said he wouldn’t have pursued the team had he not thought they could return to being a top-10 team again in terms of attendance and revenues.

What’s been impressive about the attendance turnaround is that the numbers for the most part reflect real human beings in the seats, as the team has reduced the number of comp tickets allocated by about 75 percent, Gaglardi said.

It’s been tough, the owner said, “but you have to educate the market. You’re not going to be able to watch NHL games for free.”

5. Chemistry experiment: One of the most intriguing parts of this season’s HBO 24/7 reality series was watching New York Rangers forward Artem Anisimov apologize to his teammates after making a mock firing motion with his stick after scoring a goal against Tampa, a celebration that sparked an on-ice brouhaha and might have indirectly led to a loss.

It was a window into the nature of a team’s chemistry, the dynamics of a dressing room where players have each other’s backs and where errors of judgment effect more than just the player in question but the greater good.

We wonder, then, what does Alexander Radulov say to his teammates behind closed doors, now that he has landed back in Nashville, that will in some way make up for running out on his teammates at the end of the 2007-08 season four years ago?

GM David Poile and Radulov spoke with the media Wednesday and said all the right things about putting the past in its place and moving forward. But Radulov’s return to the NHL represents a great clash of two motherhood issues for pro athletes and specifically for hockey players: the desire to win and loyalty to your team and teammates. Radulov straddles those two imperatives. He enhances the Predators’ chances for their longest playoff run ever. But he has shown zero loyalty to the franchise that drafted him.

Captain Shea Webertold ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun in no uncertain terms that the players were comfortable with Radulov’s return, regardless of the circumstances of his departure, but one wonders whether there are enough mea culpas in the world to make up for what might have been.

Think Radulov would have helped against Chicago in 2010 when the Preds had the eventual Cup champs on the ropes in the first round? Or last spring, when they were battling Vancouver and couldn’t find enough goals to dislodge the Presidents’ Trophy winners?

How many millions of dollars in playoff revenues did Radulov’s selfishness cost the franchise that owns his rights?

Those questions, though, seem moot when confronted with what is believed to be this franchise’s best opportunity for a long playoff run and perhaps a shot at their first Stanley Cup.

In short, winning -- or the lure of winning -- trumps all, even the shame of having turned your back on your teammates.