This is every Capitals’ fan worst nightmare: Ovi out with an injury. The good news: his time on the sideline doesn’t appear likely to be protracted — a forecast of two weeks arrived from head coach Bruce Boudreau on Tuesday. Still, beginning tonight in New Jersey, the Caps face something they’ve only had to on four other occasions the past five seasons, and only twice because of injury: playing a full game without the Gr8 in the lineup.
On Sunday night, in the middle of the Caps’ 5-4 overtime loss to Columbus, Ovi went down, and the Caps skated with striking determination in first tying the Blue Jackets and then twice taking leads in the final 20 minutes without their best player. That performance raised an intriguing question: is there an inner reserve in Ovi’s teammates that perhaps lies dormant when he’s in the lineup and performing brilliantly? Call it a silver lining perhaps to a scary scenario: a strategic reserve of grit the Caps can tap in to. One thing seemed certain from that limited third period laboratory Sunday night: the Caps cannot play quite the same game without Ovi in the lineup; instead, with a healthy chunk of talent out of the lineup they must pursue a more “blue collar” ethic — particularly on the power play.
But one skill player who could and should seize an enlarged role in the days and weeks ahead is Alexander Semin. Fairly or not, Semin may be judged anew over the next couple of weeks because of how his countryman Evgeni Malkin ascended to extraordinarily productive leadership when his all-world teammate Sindey Crosby went out of the Penguins’ lineup in 2008. Crosby in late January 2008 suffered a high ankle sprain, and all Malkin did was score 17 goals and 23 assists in the 23 games Crosby missed. It was that particular run by Malkin that led the Russian center out from under Crosby’s shadow and has ever since secured him consensus standing alongside Crosby and Ovechkin as the game’s lead stars.
Can Semin rise to the role of go-to guy with Ovi out? In this his contract year it would serve him well to. And there ought not be any doubt that Semin possesses skill enough for the task — he’s an authentic All Star talent, a mortal lock to skate for Russia in February’s Winter Olympics, clearly a stealth sniper on the power play, a player whose lethal wrists and howitzer shot need only meager time and space to unleash. He’s a dynamic and game-breaking talent. But in a relatively young NHL career Semin hasn’t demonstrated consistent health or a consistent commitment to playing reliably in all three zones. He’s yet to be asked to take on a leadership role with the team’s offense. That changes tonight.
The Gr8 is the team’s leading scorer, he has been the most productive player on the ice for nearly five years now, and he has long come through in the clutch when he’s been asked too. With him out of the lineup, Washington will need to do two things to get back on the winning track. The Caps will have to play strong team defense, and collectively they will have to replace Ovi’s goals — about a goal a game, head coach Bruce Boudreau figured this week. Alexander Semin alone has the game to replace the missing offense.
The “other Alex” has been somewhat like a lightning bug here in D.C. — a fairly fleeting and flickering light of allure. In five seasons with the Capitals, Semin has amassed 229 points in 265 games played, but is only +1 overall. The light about his game was certainly on at the start of last season, as No. 28 was the NHL’s leading scorer in the season’s first month and looked every bit like the player the Caps were expecting when they drafted him. He again suffered an injury, and he never quite recaptured that early season dominance. That bright light flickered and flashed as the season wore on, and culminated with a comparatively dreadful postseason showing.
It is safe to say that Semin has been solid through the first part of the current season, scoring seven goals to go along with six assists. Now he is offered an unprecedented opportunity to step up and be the go-to guy who potentially halts the Caps’ two-game skid and keeps the team near the top of the Eastern conference.
Semin most likely will find himself back on the top line, presumably with Nick Backstrom and Mike Knuble. Semin probably needs an elite playmaking talent pivot, and Backstrom certainly qualifies. Knuble has done nothing short of cause total chaos in front of the opposing net. Semin will then be the shooter on the line, and for good reason with that wicked wrist shot. Theoretically he should see plenty of quality chances on that line.
Of course what is key in all of this is not so much if Semin scores, but when. The young Russian needs to score power play and game-winning goals in his upgraded role. These are the goals that can bolster a team’s confidence and create within it a new swagger, and such success could additionally reorient a lot of fans’ and media perception about Semin as a secondary and unreliable star.
Now obviously there are a number of other guys who could also score these goals, but Semin should be the guy Washington looks to. And Semin himself should seek to score them — presumably his agent and he are seeking a new contract commensurate with that status. He is the second best player on the team and he has an opportunity to re-establish himself in the hockey world. It’s not a question of if he can do it, but rather if he will do it.