As Ovi goes, so go the Caps
Former heayweight champion Floyd Patterson liked to remind people what separated him from other boxers of his era.
“They said I was the fighter who got knocked down the most,” Patterson once said, “but I also got up the most.”
Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin suffered his share of knockdowns in recent years from pundits who saw his goal totals drop from the mid-50s to the mid-30s.
Entering tonight’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Ovechkin is tied with Steven Stamkos in the NHL goal-scoring race with 26, putting him on pace for 53 goals in a normal 82-game season.
Ovechkin was asked if the recent criticism helped spur his run of 17 goals in his last 15 games.
“I think I get criticized the last two years,” he said Thursday. “I don’t give attention to you guys or other guys. It happens.”
So what is it that motivates the Capitals’ 27-year-old right wing?
“It’s the time,” he said.
The time of year?
Don’t be mistaken. There is more to Ovechkin’s game this season than proving his critics wrong.
There are subtle changes that are resulting in more touches, better chances and more offense. And it starts, coach Adam Oates says, with better defensive positioning.
“He’s had such a focus on goal scoring that maybe [the defensive] end of the rink didn’t matter,” Oates said. “He’s going to turn the puck over [by playing good defense] so he can get another chance.
“He’s never looked at it that way before. His teammates see that and it’s important to them. He blocked two shots [in Montreal] and that’s important to them. He blocked a shot because he was in front of it.”
Oates used a goal by Jack Hillen Tuesday night as an example. A big hit by Ovechkin in the defensive zone forced a turnover that sent the puck the other way. Ovechkin raced to the front of the net and provided a screen on Hillen’s shot. Ovechkin did not record a point in the play, but it was his defensive positioning that created it.
Caps defenseman Mike Green said that if there is a change he sees in Ovechkin’s game. It’s that willingness to play both ends of the rink.
“He’s playing a smart game,” Green said. “He’s evolved as a player throughout the year and he’s really found his niche now of being able to play defense and getting on the offense.
“He’s always been able to score goals, but he’s found a way to play within his game and I think that goes hand in hand with Oatesy helping him throughout the year. He’s playing great right now. He’s leading us every night and that’s what we need.”
Another aspect of Ovechkin’s game that has undergone change is the way in which he enters the offensive zone. Through the first seven years of his career, Ovechkin had a tendency to fly uncontrollably into the offensive zone and attempt to beat one or two defensemen before powering a shot on net.
Under Oates he’s often joining the rush late, allowing linemates Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom to gain the zone, then finding lanes in which to operate. That was the case on his goal against the Canadiens.
Backstrom and Johansson pushed their way into the zone with speed, then found Ovechkin, who passed the puck through Michael Ryder and to himself before ripping a shot past Carey Price.
“He’s letting Marcus and Backy lead the rush instead of him being a bull in a china shop,” Oates said.
“It’s not about me,” Ovechkin said. “The whole line is working hard out there. We just communicate together, lots of talking, and it’s giving us results.”
The results have been indisputable. The Capitals’ top line has combined for 22 goals in the 13 games since they were assembled. The Caps are 10-2-1 in that time and have taken control of the Southeast Division.
In the process, they’ve managed to silence many of Ovechkin’s critics
“Everybody goes through good times and bad times and his bad times get magnified a little more,” teammate Jason Chimera said. “He goes as we do. When we’re playing well it’s usually when Ovi’s playing well.”
Oates said that is par for the course for the game’s elite players and he predicted Ovechkin will be an even more complete player a year from now than he is today.
“Given who he is and what he’s accomplished and his status in the game, he has the most pressure with you guys, with the public, with everybody,” Oates said. “And the better he plays the game of hockey the more everybody’s going to get off his back.”