ARLINGTON, Va. — At first, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin was not a huge fan of first-time NHL head coach Adam Oates’ attempt to move him from left wing to right wing.
“We tried it a couple of times,” Ovechkin said, reflecting on the start of the season as he prepares to face the visiting New York Rangers in Game 1 of their playoff series Thursday night. “I didn’t feel comfortable there.”
So Oates temporarily relented and switched Ovechkin back to the left side for a handful of games, putting the two-time league MVP on a line with little-used players, as if to send the message: Are you sure this is what you want?
That didn’t last long. Ovechkin agreed to give Oates’ experiment another try.
“I’m glad I did,” Ovechkin said. “And I’m glad it worked.”
Certainly can’t argue with the results. By scoring 22 times in the last 21 regular-season games, Ovechkin ended up leading the league with 32 goals in a lockout-shortened schedule — his third Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, but first since 2009. He also helped push the Capitals to the Southeast Division title even though they won only two of their first 11 games.
“Right now,” Ovechkin said, “I feel probably the same way I feel on the left side.”
Yes, after two seasons in which he was no longer the score-at-will superstar he had been earlier in his career, Alexander the Great is back.
A headache for opponents to deal with, and one of the main reasons the Capitals feel they’ve got a chance to win any game.
“He’s got that swagger again, that swagger where you’re sitting on the bench, and he’s got the puck, and everyone’s standing up, because he might score. He might score every time he gets the puck. You never know,” teammate Matt Hendricks said. “It’s great to see him playing with that confidence again.”
After averaging more than 50 goals over his first five NHL seasons, with a high of 65, Ovechkin finished with only 32 two years ago, then 38 last year. One way to look at his resurgence: The 27-year-old Russian scored the same number of goals in 48 games this season as he compiled in 79 games in 2010-11.
Watching from afar as an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils the past two years, Oates — a former Capitals forward who is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame — thought he detected a reason for the scoring decline.
Put simply, Oates said, Ovechkin “didn’t get the puck enough.” Oates thought changing the side of the ice Ovechkin spends much of his time on could be a way to get more touches.
Oates pitched the idea to Capitals general manager George McPhee during a job interview to replace Dale Hunter as Washington’s coach.
“When we interviewed Adam this summer, he was convinced that he could make (Ovechkin) a better player. And that was a big part of choosing Adam,” McPhee said. “Everybody’s going to say, ‘I can get this guy going.’ But Adam had the video and the data to back it up.”
As for why Oates’ plan made sense, McPhee explained: “It had gotten stale on the left side. It had gotten a little bit too predictable. … Teams started making adjustments to play him over the years, and the game changed a lot over the years, with clogging up the neutral zone again. So he had to adjust, and Adam helped him with that.”
Oates understood why Ovechkin might have harboured doubts, though.
“‘I need kind of my security blanket,’ in a sense,” is the way Oates described his player’s hesitation about leaving the left side.
“I was totally comfortable with that,” Oates said. “Like I said to him all along, ‘It’s going to be your call, eventually.’ I wanted to keep testing the water … and we got to a point where he said, ‘Sure.”‘
Ask around the locker room, and there are other explanations offered for why Ovechkin is scoring so much again.
Teammates are quick to note that centre Nicklas Backstrom is healthy after missing 40 games with a concussion last season; his 40 assists ranked third in the NHL. Others say Ovechkin is getting more mature as he gets older and growing into his role as captain. Some even point to his engagement to top-20 professional tennis player Maria Kirilenko, which Ovechkin himself says “helped me a lot.”
The most obvious difference on the ice, though, is that move to the right, something Oates calls an example of Ovechkin being “unselfish.”
“Everybody had him down as some sort of superhuman. Batman or Superman. (But) opponents were learning and catching on to tendencies he had, and now that he switched over to the right side, it’s kind of giving a different look … and opens up some more space,” forward Joel Ward said. “It’s no secret: Anytime you’ve got a guy that can hit a home run, it’s always beneficial. He can score from nothing.”
Nowadays, with the post-season getting started, Ovechkin sees the advantages.
“Different angles all the time,” he said. “I can have more puck possession and touches.”
And, so far, more goals.
Note: “As long as there are no setbacks,” Oates said, Ward is expected to play Thursday after missing the last nine regular-season games with a left knee injury. Oates called it “really encouraging” that Ward “took a full practice at full speed” Tuesday.