MONTREAL – Saturday night’s post-game media scrum was about to break up when a Montreal reporter asked Capitals coach Adam Oates about Alex Ovechkin’s incredible goal-scoring surge, which reached 30 in the Caps’ 5-1 win.
“He never lost his touch,” the reporter said, “but it looks good now.”
Oates leaned back on his heels and smiled.
“It looks good now,” Oates said. “A month ago I wouldn’t say anybody was saying he hadn’t lost his touch. But we had faith in him. We knew what he could do. He’s proved it and we’re going as he’s going and he’s playing good right now.”
As the cameras and tape recorders clicked off and the scrum parted, Oates turned to a Washington reporter and said, “Who’s he kidding? A month ago, everybody was saying Ovi lost his touch.”
To be fair, back on March 13 it was a legitimate question. Through his first 25 games under Oates, Ovechkin had nine goals, 11 assists, was averaging four shots a game and was a minus-7.
Making matters worse, the Capitals were treading water in the deep end of the Eastern Conference standings with a 10-14-1 record and, well, it was natural to wonder if the team’s 27-year-old captain would ever be more than a 30-goal scorer.
Not any more.
Since being held without a shot in a 4-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on March 12, Ovechkin has 21 goals, 11 assists, is averaging 5.4 shots and is a plus-7 in 20 games.
As a result, the Caps have gone 15-4-1 in that stretch, have not lost back-to-back games, and can clinch their fifth Southeast Division title in six years with a win over the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday night at what should be an electric crowd at Verizon Center.
What has been the secret to Ovechkin’s turnaround?
“Oatesy’s coaching to his style of play,” teammate Troy Brouwer said. “He’s always been looked at as an offensive guy, but he’s working hard to play defense as well.
“He loves playing when he’s scoring goals. You can see it. Even when it’s 5-1 he’s celebrating like it’s 1-0 or an overtime win. He loves doing that. He’s got more confidence in himself and rightfully so. That’s why he’s playing so well lately.”
The key phrase in Brouwer’s assessment of Ovechkin is “working hard to play defense.”
Right or wrong, for years Ovechkin was viewed as a one-dimensional player who could rarely be found inside his own blue line. In the span of three months Oates has convinced Ovechkin that by coming all the way back to the defensive faceoff circles, his line can generate speed through the neutral zone, allowing him to “touch” the puck more and forcing defensemen to back off their own blue line.
The transformation took patience on the part of Oates and Ovechkin, but the results are undeniable.
Mike Ribeiro says Ovechkin’s powerful shot sets him apart from just about every player in the NHL, but there is something else he learned about the NHL’s leading goal scorer and sudden recipient of MVP attention.
“He plays to win,” Ribeiro said. “Obviously, he’s a goal scorer and those guys want to score goals. But at the end of the day he’s more worried about winning than his own personal stats.
“That’s the biggest thing I see, that winning to him is more important. That and playing with his emotion. When he’s playing with emotion he’s in it and he’s a different player.”