WASHINGTON (WUSA) -- When Washington left wing Alex Ovechkin hits the ice tomorrow night in Montreal, it will be his first game in 13 days thanks to the the NHL's five-day All-Star break and the three-game suspension for his hit on Pittsburgh's Zybnek Michalek which prompted him to skip last weekend's festivities in Ottawa.
While fans in the Canadian capital were surely disappointed by Ovechkin's self-imposed absence from the wide-open All-Star Game, those in the nation's capital should be worried both about their Caps, whose 4-2 loss on Wednesday night dropped them out of the Southeast Division lead and an Eastern Conference playoff spot and about their captain.
Simply put, Ovechkin, the 2008 and 2009 winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player, is no longer even Washington's MVP. Center Nicklas Backstrom has been sidelined for a month with a concussion, but he still has more points than the former superstar.
Yes, I said former superstar. Ovechkin, once hockey's most feared combination of offensive weapon and physical force, just hasn't been that player since he failed to lead Russia into the medal round of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver while the Penguins' Sidney Crosby led Canada to the gold medal.
That victory shifted the mantle of hockey's best player from Ovechkin to Crosby, who was drafted first overall in 2005, the year after the Russian dynamo.
Ovechkin, then 24, was having a typically terrific season before those 2010 Olympics with 42 goals and 47 assists in 54 games. But he scored just eight goals and 12 assists in the remaining 18 regular season games before he and the top-seeded Caps were shocked in the first round of the playoffs by the eighth-seeded Canadiens.
The Great Eight's slump continued in 2010-11 as he set career-lows with 32 goals and 85 points and managed just 10 points in nine playoffs games as Washington was swept out of the second round by underdog Tampa Bay.
This year has been even worse for Ovechkin, who has just 20 goals (tied for 15th in the NHL) and 19 assists for 39 points (tied for 20th) with only 32 games remaining. He didn't deserve the All-Star selection he declined.
Hours before he was suspended on Jan. 23, Ovechkin was asked if he plays better when he plays physically.
"Of course," he said. "You in the game. When you're just skating around without the hits, you're not in the game."
The followup question was whether the suspension - Ovechkin's third during the last three seasons - would cause him to change his physical style.
"I'm physical?" he replied with a smile. "We'll see."
It's beyond time for the Caps to see Ovechkin regain his superstar status. If he remains a good - point per game - but not great player, Washington's chances of overtaking Florida for a fifth straight Southeast crown let alone its first Stanley Cup will grow dimmer by the day.
In the short-term, Ovechkin's teammates hope that Ovechkin doesn't change his hard-charging style because of his latest suspension.
"We need that physical play," said winger Troy Brouwer, whom Washington acquired from Chicago in June and so has faced Ovechkin as an opponent. "(Ovi) brings a lot of dynamics to a team with speed, skill and that physical play."
But Brouwer said that the tougher enforcement by the NHL has affected the way that he plays.
"It does change your game," he admitted. "It makes you a little bit more tentative. There's a lot of (potential) hits that you pull a little bit (to avoid) because you're not sure if the guy's gonna try to change angles on ya."
Matt Hendricks is Washington's main enforcer, but he's also changed his game this season.
"If this game isn't played physically, it's not a very good hockey game," Hendricks said. "(But) it needs to be a physical game without those elbow (and) head shots. It's good for the game, good for us. I've slowed down a lot. In the past, I felt 'He's close enough to the boards, he's not gonna go headfirst into (them), he's not gonna get hurt' and I would make contact with him. Now we're holding each other up a little bit more, trying to keep from getting suspended."
Even Caps coach Dale Hunter, whose infamous hit from behind on the Islanders' Pierre Turgeon in the 1993 playoffs earned him a 21-game suspension and who's the only NHL player ever with 3,000 penalty minutes and 1,000 points, agreed that, "you have to adapt."
But can Ovechkin adapt? Or after nearly two years that have included the crushing Olympic defeat, the playoff upsets by the Canadiens and Lightning, and the trio of suspensions, is the lesser Ovechkin his new normal?
WUSA-9's Sports Insider, David Elfin, has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of seven books on Washington sports including the new "Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History."