Photo credit: Bruce Bennett
We haven’t seen Alex Ovechkin like this in a while — for more than two years to be exact. On an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center, Ovi showed that he is not washed up. He can still be Alex Ovechkin. Three goals, four points, and one Capitals victory. It was his first hat trick since January 2011.
“The chances are there but just sometimes I feel the puck just doesn’t want to go in,” Ovechkin told reporters after the game. “Today it’s that kind of a game. Almost every shots goes in.”
Finally, this season is starting to look bright for the Great Eight. He struggled early in the year, registering two more collisions with teammates then he did goals for a time. Now, though, he’s scoring at his old pace. Caps fans waited a long time to see — and cheer — for that.
“To be honest with you I kind of forget what “Rock the Red” means,” Ovi said.
Saturday, though, he definitely didn’t.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself to score and be the guy who leads us that way,” said Troy Brouwer. “Hopefully tonight it’s a little weight off his chest, and he’s able to just play hockey. We need him to score to be successful. He stepped up tonight.”
Ovi’s drop off in production the past few years has been well documented. His season-by-season point totals: 106, 92, 112, 110, 109, 85, 65. That’s not good. The Caps, it seems, realize this. New head coach Adam Oates switched Ovechkin from the left wing to the right and moved him from the point to the half wall on the power play. While he faltered at the beginning of the year before being moved back to left side and then changing to the right again, he’s picked it up as of late. The key to his improvement seemed to have been having him wait for a pass at the circles — to convert rather than create. All of his goals save for one (his second on Saturday) have come from him releasing a quick shot from there.
“He likes to be there,” Mike Ribeiro told me when asked about Ovi’s goals from the circles. “I like him to be on the hashmarks.”
“It’s what I hear, he has a good shot,” he added. “I’m just trying to get him the puck.”
In fact, Ovechkin had not handled the puck at all on any of his tallies until the third period this afternoon. Just under a minute and half into the frame, Ovi skated down the right wing after taking a pass from Matt Hendricks. Instead of trying to get pass the defender at any cost as he has been wont to do lately, Ovi used the Devils’ Anton Volchenkov as screen on goaltender Johan Hedberg before firing a wrister through the D-man’s legs. It was a classic Ovechkin move, only this time on a different wing.
He seems much more at home on the right side now — converting and creating. He’s getting used to Oates’s new system now and he knows where to be on the ice. In front of his fiancee Maria Kirilenko, Ovi had his first three goal game in over two years, a rather remarkable stat, and his first at home in more than three.
Said Ribeiro: “The good thing is you can see his legs are moving better, he’s skating better, he’s playing with emotion, and that’s what you need from your captain.”
Ribeiro, who’s been centering Ovi much of the year, explained Ovechkin’s second goal of the game (the one on the rush) is the realization of what the Capitals want to see by putting him on the right side.
“[It] is exactly what he’s trying to do, change angles and stuff like that,” Ribs said of Ovi’s tally.
“Obviously it’s hard to change positions,” he added. “You know your options, what to do on the left side, and then you switch to the right side. I think he’s been adjusting well. The last 10 games he’s been a power forward not just a skill player.”
Oates agreed with the veteran center.
“I think he looks more comfortable,” the coach said. “It’s still a process. It’s only been a short time. One of the reasons is he gets more touches with the puck and I think everybody’s seen that the last couple weeks he’s got the puck more, more involved with it, and hopefully that will engage him with the game more.”
It’s a big change for a player to switch positions. It’s made harder when it doesn’t work right away, which is what happened to Ovechkin early in the year. Ovi, though, seems to have faith that Oates knows what he’s doing — that the Hall of Fame player-turned-coach is only making him switch because he genuinely believes it’s the best way to improve his game. Trust is what makes the difference between swearing at a coach under your breath and committing to what he says regardless of the results on the scoresheet.
Ovi relayed a story that proved the point: “Last game I have two breakaways and I text him and I say ‘Listen, I don’t know. Puck just don’t go through.’ He text me back ‘It’s going to come.’ For a player if you feel that kind of trust for a coach, for a coaching staff, it’s very important.”