WASHINGTON, D.C. -- During the recent stretch when the Washington Capitals stopped winning and their star captain, Alex Ovechkin, stopped scoring goals, it became fashionable to wonder if perhaps this was symptomatic of some sort of fatal flaw for the NHL's best team.
Early in the second period of the Capitals' game against the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, Ovechkin somehow couldn't find the handle on a pass at the side of the Wild goal. He then looked briefly skyward as if to say, "Really? Again?"
And so it seemed, for a brief moment, that there might be something to the notion that the generation's greatest goal scorer and a sure-fire Hall of Famer is starting to decline.
Or maybe it was the sign of something else altogether.
"How do I say it?" Ovechkin told ESPN.com in an interview earlier in the day. "I've been in this situation [before]. I didn't score for like five or six games. It will come. I don't need goals right now. I'd like to hope they're going to come in the playoffs when we do need it."
And there's the rub, no?
You can't complain about Ovechkin and the Capitals being all show during the regular season and no dough come playoff time -- and then turn around and sound the alarm when Ovechkin and the Capitals don't produce the same regular-season crackle we're used to. Can you?
Maybe that's what's different about this team this season compared to a year ago. when Ovechkin was hitting the 50-goal mark for the third season in a row and winning his third consecutive Rocket Richard Trophy for leading the league in goals -- and the Capitals had obliterated the competition in the Eastern Conference en route to a Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best regular-season team.
"Last year we were never uncomfortable because we had such a big lead [in the points race]," said Washington head coach Barry Trotz.
But, entering Tuesday's game, which Washington would end up winning 4-2, the Caps had lost four straight and their big guns had gone dry -- including Ovechkin, who'd gone 10 games without a goal -- the longest drought of his career -- and 18 games without an even-strength score.
Nobody knows this team's failings in the playoffs better than the captain. The Capitals may have won two Presidents' Trophies during the Ovechkin era that began in 2005-06 -- and may yet win a third in a few weeks.
But they have never been beyond the second round of the playoffs.
"Obviously, it's totally different mentally," Ovechkin said of the postseason. "You can say it's a totally different world. You prepare yourself, but you don't know how it's going to be. Mentally, it's totally different. Sometimes you just don't know what to expect."
And so perhaps enduring this flat spell right now isn't such a bad thing for the Capitals. Better now than a month from now.
Several Capitals players quietly acknowledged as much. Ovechkin did so too, but not so quietly.
"I think it's a good thing," Ovechkin said. "You don't want to lose, but I'd take those four losses right now rather than in the playoffs. In the playoffs, if you lose you're done, your season is over. We still have 15 games to get ready for the big moments. You never know what's going to happen out there."
Trotz said that the Capitals' coaches took a hard look at the stats during Ovechkin's goal-less streak, and they found that he and his linemates were clearing the defensive zone smoothly -- which doesn't usually happen when players are cheating to try to create offense.
"He's playing a pretty good game," Trotz said. "I think he's not quite shooting enough of those one-timers. When he gets an opportunity, they're just not sitting flat for him right now. And he's just missing the net a little bit. If he starts shooting a little bit more off that one-timer and hitting the net a little bit more, they're going to go in. No question about that. But his work ethic and his skating and all that, it's all there. So it's going to happen for him."
So, what's worse for Ovechkin -- not scoring a goal for the longest stretch of his career or answering questions about why he's not scoring?
"To be honest with you, if you ask me like five or six years ago I'd probably say, 'Oh geez, it's terrible feeling," Ovechkin said. "Of course, like I've said before, I want to score. I want to be part of the success. Sometimes the moment is unbelievable. Like, I just missed it. It's happened. You just have to fight through it."
And of course he did just that.
Not long after he looked up in dismay after missing another golden chance, there was Ovechkin in that familiar spot at the left faceoff circle, snapping home a one-timer just as a Washington power play came to an end.
He didn't get all of it, but as he noted after, he had had lots better opportunities during the previous 10 games that didn't find the back of the net.
So, no apologies necessary from Ovechkin, who has 28 points in his past 30 games, slump or no slump.
The losing streak came to an end. Ovechkin's goal-scoring drought is over. But things won't get any easier for the Caps, who have the Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets up next. But, as Trotz put it, "sometimes a good punch in the nose is a good wake-up call for you."
Consider the Capitals and their captain fully awake.