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Searching For Secondary Scoring

As the Caps enter the stretch run, they are led by arguably the game's best player in Alexander Ovechkin. AO leads the League in goals, points, power play goals and shots, is one off the pace in game-winners, gets more ice time than any forward in the League who isn't coached by John Tortorella, is 21st in the NHL in plus-minus, fifth among forwards in hits and ninth in takeaways. He's had a four-goal game in each of the last two months and hasn't gone three games without a goal all season (only thrice has he been held goal-less in back-to-back games).

All the more amazing, with 70 points on the season, he has factored in 45% of the Caps' 154 goals. In other words, teams know that if they can shut down Alex Ovechkin, they can beat the Caps. Easier said than done, of course, but while Ovie keeps piling up the numbers, there is reason for concern that the team's secondary scoring has been largely non-existant since Michael Nylander's season ended prematurely on January 15. Here's a quick run-down of the Caps game-by-game, even strength goal scorers since Nyls' injury, with the goals scored by other-than-first-liners in bold:
  • 1/15 (OTT): Alex Semin (2)
  • 1/17 (EDM): Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin, Semin
  • 1/19 (FLA): John Erskine, Viktor Kozlov
  • 1/21 (PIT): Tomas Fleischmann, Kozlov, Ovechkin
  • 1/23 (TOR): Ovechkin, Semin
  • 1/24 (TOR): Kozlov
  • 1/29 (MTL): None
  • 1/31 (MTL): Ovechkin (4), Kozlov
The good news is that the top line is producing in a huge way - 12 even-strength goals (and another five on the power play) in eight games, and the power play has been clicking consistently (nine goals in the eight games). But the fact that the team is getting no offensive production from its third and fourth lines and the second line has only two even-strength goals in the team's last six games is a bit of a concern.

Put another way, since Michael Nylander's exit from the lineup eight games ago, the Caps have exactly one even-strength goal scored by a forward not named Alex, Viktor or Nicklas.

I'm perfectly comfortable relying on Alex Ovechkin to carry this team. And on many nights, they don't need much more than Number Eight to win. But even AO is only good for one four-goal night a month, apparently (slacker). If the Caps are going to stay in the hunt for a Division title, they're probably going to need to find a way to get more even-strength production from the bottom three lines, and that starts with finding a center for Alex Semin. Since the Nylander injury, Boyd Gordon and Brooks Laich - Semin's most frequent five-on-five pivots - have no goals and just three assists (two of which came in the same game) at even strength in sixteen man-games. While AO can often come out on top in a one-on-five situation, AS is usually at his worst in such situations, and the past few games have shown that. Alex Semin may not need much space in which to perform his magic, but he does need some, and his current linemates aren't helping him in that respect.

Beyond the second line, there are plenty of guys whose primary job may not be goal scoring, but from whom the team needs at least the occassional tally. Matt Pettinger scored 16 goals last year and 20 the year before but has just one goal since Halloween. Laich has two goals in his last 20 games. Gordon is goal-less in ten. Dave Steckel scored 30 goals in Hershey last year, but has only four in this NHL season so far. Matt Bradley doesn't have a goal since the day after Christmas. And since Brian Pothier's goal on December 27, blueliners other than Mike Green have chipped in only a single goal.

The bottom line, of course, is that the team is winning games and winning them in bunches. But for a squad that has averaged less than a goal per game from its bottom three lines since their second-line center left the lineup, you've got to wonder how long that can last, especially in light of the goaltending they're getting.