WINNIPEG – The Washington Capitals may be struggling but centre Mike Ribeiro is having one of the best seasons of his career with his new team, leading even star winger Alex Ovechkin in scoring.
“Power-play here (with Washington), there’s a lot of guys can shoot the puck,” the Montreal native said Thursday as he prepared for the first of back-to-back games against the Winnipeg Jets.
“It’s easier for me to pass the puck than scoring, so obviously those guys are helping me by putting the puck in the net.”
They have helped Ribeiro rack up a total of 32 points so far this lockout-shortened season, good enough for eighth place on the NHL scoring list entering Thursday’s game.
He had also helped himself by scoring 10 goals of his own to complement his 22 assists.
That put him eight points ahead of Ovechkin, the Capitals’ veteran star and captain.
Ovechkin and the Capitals are struggling to regain some of last season’s sparkle. If things continue at their current pace, this could be the first season since 2006-07 that the Capitals have failed to make the playoffs.
But Ribeiro, 33, has exceeded Washington’s expectations when picked him to centre a stronger second line and take some pressure off Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
“Mike fits with any team,” said Capitals head coach Adam Oates.
“He’s an elite centreman in the league. He’s got great vision with the puck. He uses both his wingers, he can go both directions.”
He was traded to the Capitals by the Dallas Stars in June for Cody Eakin and a second-round draft pick. He spent six seasons in Dallas and is in the last year of a five-year, $25-million contract.
He becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer, which has already sparked rumours he might be traded again, even though he seems like a critical piece if the Capitals have any hope of turning things around.
Last season they took the New York Rangers to seven games in the conference semifinals, but a Ribeiro trade could be a sign that Washington has given up any hope of a playoff appearance this year.
The Capitals have been sitting above last-place Florida in the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference.
With the Jets leading the Southeast going into Thursday’s game, it’s a complete reversal of last season, which saw the Panthers and Capitals finish one and two at the top of the division.
Ribeiro was originally drafted by his home-town Montreal Canadiens in 1998, bounced between the minors and NHL and was finally traded to the Stars in 2006 after failing to impress.
He quickly turned that around in Dallas. He became the leading scorer for his new team and followed with some career-best numbers.
Ovechkin is the one most opposing players talk about watching when the Capitals come to town, but Ribeiro gets respect as well.
“I always knew he was a great player,” said Winnipeg Jets centre Bryan Little.
“He’s one of those guys that’s super skilled and he may not have the flash of Ovechkin but he’s one of those guys you look at the scoresheet after the game and he has three or four assists and maybe a goal.
“He’s one of those guys that thrives on slowing down and kind of being a playmaker.”
Ribeiro also is one of only a dozen players currently active in the NHL who has had eight consecutive 50-point or better seasons.
He says he was young when he played in Montreal but found his feet in Dallas, which he said was a better fit.
Washington also seems to be a pretty good fit.
“The last few years I’ve had slow starts and it was important for me this year to start strong and, hopefully, I can keep going this way,” he said.