Rebirth of Ovechkin had its labor pains

Rebirth of Ovechkin had its labor pains
April 28, 2013, 12:30 am
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(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Alex Ovechkin is going to need to make room for at least one more trophy in his home.

Thanks to an incredible surge of offense that saw him score 23 goals in his final 23 games Ovechkin won the Rocket Richard Trophy for the third time in six years, finishing the season with a league-high 32 goals, three more than runner-up Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I just moved into a new house so there’s lots of room there,” Ovechkin said through a smile Saturday night when asked about adding to his trophy collection.

“It feels great. It’s good to bounce back. My partners [Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson] do a great job, the coaches do a great job to trust me in different kinds of situations. So I feel good.”

Ovechkin assisted on a pair of goals by Mike Green in the Caps’ 3-2 overtime win against the Bruins, giving him 32 goals and 24 assists for 56 points in 48 games. That leaves him in a third-place tie in NHL scoring, one point behind Stamkos and four behind Art Ross Trophy winner Marty St. Louis, who finished with 60 points.

If Ovechkin was not in consideration for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player a few weeks ago, he is now.

“I’m happy for him,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said. “One of the reasons I think he should win the Hart is because of his unselfishness to change positions for the club. I’m glad for him that he’s had success and he’s helped our team go.”

It was Oates who first suggested that Ovechkin move from left wing, where he had played his entire career as a right-handed shot, to right wing. Oates first brought it up with Capitals general manager George McPhee when he interviewed for the coaching job last summer.

“I thought it was a good idea,” McPhee said. “We had tried him on the right a couple times in previous years and I thought it looked good. We tried to get him away from certain matchups from time to time and he seemed to play a better game over there.

“When Adam suggested it we were all for it. Any coach that’s interviewing is going to say he can come in and get him going. Adam was really convinced and he had the video to back it up. ‘This is what we did with this player, and this is what we did with this player.’ And he wasn’t wrong. It worked.”

Well, not right away.

Ovechkin began the season at right wing, but after failing to score a goal in his first three games he asked Oates to move him back to the left side.

“The first couple of games, like I tell him, ‘OK, Oatesy, let’s put me back on the left side,’” Ovechkin said. “And he put me back.”

“I was totally comfortable with that,” Oates said. “I said to him all along it was going to be his call, but I wanted him testing the water.”

Oates moved Ovechkin back to left wing as a “security blanket,” but matched him with fourth-line forwards Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb. When the trio managed one goal in three games, Oates sat down with his captain and showed him a video highlighting how much more he touched the puck as a right wing than he did as a left wing.

“He showed me the video and I started to believe in it,” Ovechkin said, “and so I said, 'OK, just put me on the right side and let’s don't talk about it anymore.’ So we didn't talk about it anymore since.”

Ovechkin’s rebirth as a right wing had its share of labor pains. He had just nine goals in his first 25 games of the season, sparking a popular question throughout the NHL.

What’s wrong with Ovi?

Ovechkin’s resurgence began when he was reunited with Nicklas Backstrom midway through the season and when Marcus Johansson returned from a concussion to join them on March 17, the goals started pouring in. But there was something else McPhee noticed about his captain that he had not seen before.

“I think he’s more responsible defensively,” McPhee said. “And if you’re good in your own end, you get more opportunities at the other end.

“But playing the right side is better for him. It’s easier for him to get the puck out of our zone and be in the right position on that side of the rink.”

Whether or not Ovechkin is a more complete player now than when he won the Hart Trophy in 2008 and 2009 is certainly a subject worthy of debate.

But there is another trophy that will ultimately define his place in NHL history.

In the afterglow of the Capitals’ regular season-ending victory over the Bruins Ovechkin was asked if this year’s Capitals are capable of winning the Stanley Cup.

“Let’s talk about that,” he said, “when we’re going to be there.”