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As Ovechkin struggles, so do the Capitals

'It's my job."

No one has to tell Alexander Ovechkin what is expected of him. He is to fly down the left wing of hockey rinks, back arched like an attacking hawk, and he is to lift people out of their seats with shots so hard goalies cannot see them or moves so breathtaking defencemen can only see them later on highlight reels.

Only, it doesn't quite happen the way it once did.

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The biggest cheer the Washington Capitals star heard Tuesday night was when he was nailed for slashing new NHL sensation Erik Karlsson early in the third period.

And it was Karlsson who, late in the third period on an Ottawa power play, made the pass to Sergei Gonchar that gave the Senators a 3-2 comeback victory.

The player who has been one of two faces of the NHL since the 2004-05 lockout – Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby the other, of course – has not shone as might be expected since the latest lockout. In this he is hardly alone among the elite players of the day.

Still, it took him five games to score his first, an overtime goal against Buffalo Sabres last Sunday. Since 2005, his 12 career OT goals are the most scored by anyone in the league. He has scored more goals (340) and points (661) than anyone else.

Last year, however, the Capitals captain slipped slightly, falling to fifth in league with 38 goals.

He is 27 now, his thick black hair salted slightly on the edges. The Stanley Cup he was expected to deliver to the Capitals has not come (whereas Crosby has his).

The Capitals, once the shining team of the east, have struggled early in a shortened season where small struggles can strangle.

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The Capitals were 1-3-1 when they arrived in Ottawa to take on the Senators – and urgency was as much in the air as the threat of freezing rain. It remains.

"No chance to have a grace period," said forward Troy Brouwer, who promptly scored the Capitals' first goal on a first-period rush where he and Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson seemed to juggle a Wojtek Wolski pass before the puck somehow found its way into the net.

Washington went ahead 2-0, when Matt Hendricks managed to tip a floater from Jay Beagle that also slipped past Anderson.

Ovechkin tried, but nothing was quite working.

"Of course, I want to be in the position where I score goals and help my team win," he had said prior to the match. "If I have an opportunity to score, I have to score."

He had but one good opportunity Tuesday and could not make it count.

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Brouwer says the early shakes are understandable. "In just over a year," he said, "we've had three coaches, three different styles."

Bruce Boudreau was replaced by Dale Hunter, who elected to forgo the NHL life for his junior hockey empire in London, Ont. Hall-of-Famer Adam Oates is now in his first head coaching job.

"I thought all in all we played a very good hockey game," Oates said. His team had dominated most of the play but could not hold their lead.

Asked if believed his charges turned a needed corner against Buffalo, Oates said: "I hope so – the win is important. You want to string a few in a row and get some confidence."

That now will have to wait.

The Senators, on the other hand, were on the verge of a third consecutive loss when they mounted their comeback. It was in itself somewhat unexpected as the team had been loudly booed by the home fans in the second period for uninspired play.

Perhaps the booing triggered something, as they were able to cut the lead to 2-1 when Jim O'Brien, the team's hardest working player Tuesday, managed to tip a pass from Erik Condra in behind Washington goaltender Michal Neuvirth.

Ottawa was without its best forward, Jason Spezza, out with an "upper body" injury. His place was taken by young prospect Mika Zibanejad, who was called up from the AHL only the day before. The 19-year-old Swede acquitted himself well, picking up an assist on O'Brien's goal.

"Felt pretty good," said the youngster.

"I thought he played really well," added Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson.

The Senators tied the game 2-2 early in the third period, when Milan Michalek flicked a harmless backhand Neuvirth's way after a faceoff and somehow the puck found the back of the net.

"I'm sure he would probably want the second one back," Oates said of his goaltender.

"It's tough to stay focused," said Neuvirth of the long periods of play where the Senators could not even muster a shot.

And then Gonchar decided the game, beautifully set up by Karlsson for a blast from the point that Neuvirth could not handle.

In Ovechkin's case, he is at least now more content than early in the season, when Oates decided to switch the Russian superstar from his customary left wing position to the right wing. It hadn't panned out.

"When I was on the right side I was a little confused, a little bit lost," Ovechkin said. "But, again, we make some changes. I tell [Oates] I am more comfortable playing left side than right side."

"That's his comfort zone, for sure," Oates said. "We want him to score goals and he got the winner for us the other night. He could have had four. To me, if you're doing that, you get the opportunity and you're playing well, he got the chances.

"I'm really not worried about it."

Others, however, surely are.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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