Alex Ovechkin sticks it to his critics leading Capitals out of the abyss
Teammates congratulate Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) after he scored against the New York Rangers in the first period of their NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden in New York March 24, 2013. (REUTERS)
Alex Ovechkin has gone from the Grate Eight back to the Great Eight.
There was a time, not long ago, the Washington Capitals captain had been written off as one of the NHL’s elite players. The eulogies – on TV, radio and in print – said he couldn’t skate anymore, couldn’t shoot and had lost his desire.
Yup, a promising career down the tubes.
But, as the Stanley Cup playoffs open Tuesday, the 27-year-old Ovechkin has served notice to his critics they shouldn’t have written him off so fast. There he was in the final week of the season leading the league in goals ... again.
Not only has Ovechkin silenced his critics, his efforts helped lift a Washington team that was all but out of the playoff picture in late February to a Southeast Division title and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Maybe that’s why Ovechkin decided to bite back recently.
“It seems like people who’ve been all over me, they can close their mouths,” Ovechkin told Washington reporters.
“Like I said months ago, if I’m going to have a couple of bad games everybody will be all over me again. I just tell myself it doesn’t matter what’s going to happen. Just don’t listen to nobody – fans, you guys. I just have to listen to my teammates and my coach and that’s it.”
To term Ovechkin’s start to this shortened season “slow” would be an understatement. He had only five goals in the Caps’ first 16 games under coach Adam Oates. Everybody was under fire, but no one more so than Ovechkin.
Then, something happened to turn the Capitals around. On Feb. 23 against the New Jersey Devils at the Verizon Center, Ovechkin scored his first hat-trick of the season to move the Capitals ahead of the Buffalo Sabres and out of last place.
His first three-goal game since Jan. 22, 2011 not only secured a 5-1 victory, it started the Caps back on the road to respectability. They had done a lot of soul-searching. Many didn’t think Oates would finish his rookie season.
Suddenly, something clicked and it may have been Ovechkin finding his touch that turned around a season that looked like it was headed down the tubes. General manager George McPhee went from the chopping block to genius.
“We’ve been able to play some good hockey after our start. I don’t know what game it was but we had a couple of internal meetings and looked at each other,” said Caps’ winger Troy Brouwer.
“We were very unhappy with where we were and the potential this team could do. We kept working hard. We stuck with it. We have a lot of trust in our system, a lot of trust in all the other players on the ice. Guys are doing their jobs and, as a result, we’re getting wins.”
Naturally, a lot of the credit is being given to Ovechkin.
The resurgence and re-emergence of Ovechkin the superstar this season – the one who was on the same level with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby only two years ago – isn’t solely because the skilled Russian has finally found the net.
“He’s always played the same way to me. We’ve created a little bit of scheme where he’s got more touches. He is a bit more involved in the game,” said Oates. “Any player, when you have a bit more confidence, it’s going to help your game.”
One of Oates’ early experiments was to play Ovechkin on his off-wing with Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb, the latter of whom is now in the minors. Not only did it fail miserably, some thought it was sign that Oates was trying to send a message he was in charge.
Ovechkin took off once he started playing with Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. Together, they formed one of the most potent trios in the league. It has helped that defenceman Mike Green has also returned to being an offensive threat.
“No. 1 is Backstrom. If I’m not mistaken most of (Ovechkin’s) goals are on the power play,” said Sportsnet analyst Doug MacLean, former president and GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets. “Backstrom’s game has come around. Green’s game has come around and Ovechkin’s game has come around.
“He can’t do it 1-on-1 anymore. Oates has got that through to him. (Backstrom and Ovechkin) played in the KHL and the pace of their game was so slow coming back it was unbelievable. All of a sudden all three are playing well.”
Even Brouwer agrees with the assessment that Ovechkin hasn’t been a lone wolf in the rise to success.
“Anytime he’s scoring at the pace he is he’s going to do nothing but help this team win,” said Brouwer. “Guys like Backstrom have helped Alex score. They make great plays to him. Johansson is on that line as well.
“We’ve got a lot good secondary scoring as well. Everybody is just pushing this team along with what we need to do.”
Ovechkin swears his game hasn’t changed from day one of the regular season. The difference is the puck is going in.
“It’s been the same. The puck is just going in,” said Ovechkin.
Ovechkin admitted it took time to adjust to Oates, the club’s third coach in a year. The Caps started last season with Bruce Boudreau behind the bench before Dale Hunter took over and left after the season. McPhee then brought in Oates.
“Sometimes we played well and luck wasn’t on our side,” said Ovechkin. “Every time we watched the video, we had lots of chances to score goals. If you don’t score goals, then you can’t win the game.
“That can depend a lot on how the goalie plays. We made a couple of changes in our lines and it’s working.”
MacLean said those who wrote Ovechkin off early in the season were foolish. He isn’t the same player, but there’s too much skill there for him to just fall off the map completely.
“You can never say a guy with that much talent is finished,” said MacLean. “You can’t write off a guy like that. Eventually they find a way to score. He’s a 40-to-50 goal guy. He just has too much talent.
“The big test for him is: What’s he going to do at playoff time? He’s scored in the playoffs but they really need him now. He likes Oates and he’s done a good job handling him. All this stuff about him being on the right wing is B.S. He has confidence and the other guys are playing well.”
The key is the Capitals feel good about themselves going into the post-season. That’s what will make them dangerous.
“We have as much confidence as anyone around right now,” said Brouwer. “Our top players are our best players every night. Everything our team needs to do to be successful we’re doing right now.”
And nobody is feeling better than Ovechkin.
“I love to score goals,” said Ovechkin. “Most important is winning. You don’t want to score a bunch of goals and then the season is done.”
Thanks in big part to Ovechkin the Caps aren’t done playing yet.
IS OVIE NHL MVP?
The ballots were cast on the weekend and Alex Ovechkin is part of the conversation.
Should he be the NHL MVP?
The fans in the United States’ capital certainly think so. Only minutes after he scored a goal in the third period last Thursday vs. the Senators, the chants of “M-V-P” started in the stands and the Capitals believe he deserves to win the Hart Memorial Trophy.
“I’m obviously very biased about that, so my answer would be ‘Yup, absolutely,’ ” coach Adam Oates told Washington reporters earlier this month.
“Obviously Sidney Crosby is another candidate, for sure. He had such a scoring lead, but I think you have to factor in the fact that he missed a lot of games.”
Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean said Ovechkin is finding a way to get to the net and make things happen.
“His ability to shoot the puck, his competitive spirit, his passion are what make him a special player. The way he can score makes him so dangerous. The physical game he brings is also a factor,” MacLean told the Washington Times.
“They do a nice job of hiding him and sliding him and moving him around. It’s a very complex thing to get organized against. It also helps him that they have so many other weapons to prepare for that it makes it harder to prepare for Alex.”
Ovechkin has tried to stay away from the debate.
“To be honest with you, I don’t focus about it ... It’s more about winning,” said Ovechkin.