Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, celebrates his goal with teammates Matt Hendricks, left, Karl Alzner (27) and Mike Ribeiro (9) during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Sunday, April 7, 2013, in Washington. The Capitals won 4-2. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
WASHINGTON - It seemed like a risky move. A first-time NHL head coach was going to try to persuade a two-time league MVP to take up a new position.
But something had to be done. Alex Ovechkin's recent numbers made him look like a stock gone bad, a valid analogy considering the Capitals aren't paying him nearly $10 million annually through the rest of this decade to be decent offensive player whose best years were already behind him.
The 27-year-old Russian's game had become so predictable and incomplete that, a year ago, he was getting benched by defensive-minded coach Dale Hunter late in games, particularly when the Capitals held a lead.
Enter Adam Oates, who moved Ovechkin from left wing to right wing and endured a miserable start to a season shortened by a labour dispute. Oates now has the Capitals—and Ovechkin—back on track. Washington has taken over first place in the Southeast Division, and Ovechkin looks like the Alexander the Great of old, netting 16 goals in 14 games to move into a tie for the NHL's goal-scoring lead.
Sounds like the risky move has paid off.
"He never met me before," Oates said. "And I totally respect who he is, and what he's accomplished. And when you suggest something like that, it has to be a meeting of the minds and private conversations, and he had to trust me. It takes a little time, and obviously I hope he does now. We're going in the right direction."
The Capitals' run of five consecutive playoff appearances was in danger of coming to an end after a 2-8-1 start. Their play were uneven and ragged through February, and Oates said on Feb. 26 that his players were only about "60-70 per cent" along the way toward getting his system down pat.
Then, sometime in March, Oates figured they were there—or at least close enough.
"Quite honestly, for the last month, we didn't talk about it," Oates said. "It's just the way we play. It's not my system or anybody's, it's just the way we play hockey. The guys know it, and when we make mistakes, it's just a team making mistakes, that's it."
Central to the turnaround is Ovechkin, who is getting the puck in different positions and no longer relies heavily on the same familiar moves to try to beat an opponent. He has 25 goals in 39 games—a 50-plus-goal pace over an 82-game season that evokes memories of his MVP seasons of 2007-08 and 2008-09.
And there's no more limiting his minutes with a lead. He was still out there when the Capitals were holding on to a one-goal lead late against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday. Ovechkin scored an empty-netter to finish off the 4-2 win.
By Oates' reckoning, that's the kind of respect due to the captain of the team.
"I told him that: 'You are the man, we know that, and I want to give you every opportunity to succeed and be the man for us,'" Oates said.
It's a vote of confidence Ovechkin did not get from Hunter.
"It's trust," Ovechkin said. "That's what I don't have last year. When you have that kind of feelings you just want to go out there, play for your team for your coach and do your best out there."
Such trust served to quickly dissipate whatever resistance Ovechkin may have felt when he and Oates first talked about switching sides.
"I just get used to it," Ovechkin said. "We still watch the video and we still look (at) my touches, my moments. It's nice when you have that kind of trust from team and from the coach."
"I don't want to talk about last year," he added. "This year is much different. Right now I feel pretty good and again we win the games—it's most important thing. Of course I'm happy I score the goals; the beginning of the year was pretty hard time for all (of the) organization. Now we're back on track and it's good."
Is it like the old days?
"It's same days," he said with a smile.
Same, but different. Ovechkin's first goal on Sunday wasn't anything flashy—just a basic tip-in.
"He's got two tips in five games," Oates said. "When did he ever do that before? Because he's around the puck more."
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