Washington Capitals have been underachieving, but a hat-trick from Alex Ovechkin may be the start os a turnaround, writes Gregg Patton.
The Caps are not quite fitting their pre-season predictions
No NHL team has been more perplexing this season than the Washington Capitals.
If a fan just emerged from a five-week stay in a cave and heard that superstar Alex Ovechkin had notched a hat-trick on Saturday in a dominating 5-1 victory over a tough New Jersey Devils team, he might have thought, "Business as usual."
Ovechkin's performance was a rare highlight. Once the league's most dangerous scorer, the 27-year-old Russian's three goals gave him eight for the season, and just 14 points.
As for the Caps, who were considered a Stanley Cup contender before the season's delayed start, last month, the two points still left them as Eastern Conference stragglers with a 6-10-1 record.
Despite the embarrassing stain of underachievement, the Caps insist brighter days are ahead, with eight weeks to get it right.
The Caps have correctable issues. They cite three recent games in which they blew third-period leads and lost in regulation, thanks to untimely penalties.
"We've given away a lot of points," Troy Brouwer, the captain, told NHL.com last week. "If we have those points, we're in" a playoff position.
They do need to avoid man-down situations. They are a middle-of-the-pack team (15th) in terms of penalties taken, among the worst (24th) at killing them.
Other trends are more encouraging. They are minus-seven in goal differential, but after sleepwalking through their first three games in the opening week of the hastily patched together season, the Caps actually have out-scored their opponents.
"We've had a chance to win every game," Adam Oates, the first-year coach, said of the past four weeks, which have included the three come-from-ahead defeats. "It's really hard sometimes, but we just try to keep on track – address the negatives, but stress the positives."
A key to their revival, of course, will be Ovechkin, whose scoring prowess has waned. After averaging 54 goals his first five seasons, he had 32 and 38 the past two seasons.
Oates switched Ovechkin from left wing to right this season, with the player's blessing, hoping to jolt the vintage goal machine into life.
"When I was on the left side, everyone knew exactly where I was going to skate and what I was going to do," Ovechkin told ESPN.com.
The hat-trick was Ovechkin's first in two years, and made Oates seem prophetic. The coach had told reporters after Friday's practice he was certain his star would regain his magic.
"I have faith he will … He has [before] and we all know he will," said Oates.
Still, it was just one game. Ovechkin, and his team, still have some climbing to do.