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Falling Star

The go-go Capitals are struggling, in part because opponents have figured out how to stop Alex Ovechkin

Here's how bad things are for the Capitals: The most memorable highlight from a 4--1 home loss to the Kings on Feb. 12 took place during a third-period timeout. From the bench, beleaguered coach Bruce Boudreau addressed his players with his arms swinging, his eyes wide, his head bobbing. He showed more emotion in his entreaty than his team did during 60 minutes of listless hockey. "I didn't chew the guys out," Boudreau insists. "I encouraged them."

Once the NHL's most entertaining team, Washington has devolved into the most puzzling one, trying to play its way through a mystifying power outage. Through Sunday, the club that led the league in scoring by a whopping 45 goals last season with 313 was tied for 15th with just 162, despite having made few significant roster changes. The Capitals ran away with the Presidents' Trophy with 121 points in 2009--10, but now stand fifth in the Eastern Conference. They have been shut out eight times—two off the league high.

Yes, the club made a conscious decision—in the wake of blowing a 3--1 series lead against the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs last spring—to be more defensively attentive, leading some to refer to the team as the Trapitals. Washington's goals-against average has improved from 16th to seventh best. But the Capitals don't trap in man-advantage situations, and their power play, which led the NHL last year (79 goals), has fallen to 22nd. Alex Ovechkin, formerly the sport's most dynamic scorer, has only four power play goals, and between Oct. 30 and Feb. 4 he went 41 games without one.

Theories abound to explain the struggles of Ovechkin, who has averaged 53.8 goals per season in his career but is on pace for just 31: He's still in a funk from the 7--3 beatdown Canada put on his Russian team at the Vancouver Olympics; he has become tentative since being slapped with a two-game suspension for boarding, and injuring, the Blackhawks' Brian Campbell last spring; he's lost a step.

The truth seems to be that the league has solved Ovechkin. Opponents used to back off him when he had the puck for fear he'd skate past them if they got too close. Now they beat him by being more physical. Both Ovechkin and Boudreau reject the notion that defenders have been getting in the face of Washington's captain more often. "You mean they weren't before?" Boudreau asks. But consider some anecdotal evidence. During a 7--0 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 12 a frustrated Ovechkin started a fight with New York center Brandon Dubinsky. On Feb. 6 he took a nasty knee-to-knee blow from the Penguins' Matt Cooke. And last week the Coyotes' Derek Morris took a two-minute penalty for hooking Ovechkin 19 seconds after the opening face-off. "Teams were afraid to take a penalty against us last year," Ovechkin says. "Now it's different. There is not so much fear."

Except perhaps in the nation's capital.

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CAP-SIZING Ovechkin scored 13 goals for the NHL's top power play in 2009--10 but has only four this year for a unit that ranks 22nd.