With 4.4 seconds remaining in the game and the Capitals clinging to a one-goal lead, Alex Ovechkin saw a seam on the right side of the ice, caught a pass from Mike Ribeiro and skated with a powerful purpose toward an empty net.
It didn’t matter that Tampa Bay Lighting center Alex Killorn stuck his stick out from the opposing bench to try to thwart Ovechkin’s attempt for his first empty-netter of the season.
Ovechkin kept motoring toward the empty cage before finishing with a slam dunk.
The goal was Ovechkin’s second of the game and 25th of the season, tying him with Steven Stamkos for the NHL lead.
Ovechkin now has 16 goals and seven assists in his last 14 games. The Caps are 10-3-1 in that span.
But there is more to this story than Ovechkin’s offensive outburst. It’s the fact that Oates had Ovechkin out on the ice in the final minute of a game the Caps were leading by one goal.
That’s something Dale Hunter never did in his 60 games as head coach last season. In fact, it was not unusual for Ovechkin to sit the bench for the final five minutes of a game the Caps were leading by a goal.
“I don’t want to talk about last year,” Ovechkin said after leading the Capitals to their eighth win in 10 games. “This year is much different. It’s trust. I don’t have that last year. When you have those kind of feelings you want to go out there and play for your coach and do your best out there.”
To his credit, Oates has helped transform Ovechkin into one of the NHL’s most dangerous players again by boldly moving him to right wing. But it’s the defensive responsibility Oates has given Ovechkin late in games that has revealed the trust he has in his 27-year-old captain.
“It’s part of evolving his game, like everybody,” Oates said.
“He’s our captain. You’re adding responsibility to their game. You want to make players grow. To me, a player should want to be out there. That’s the ultimate compliment, when a coach puts you out there late in a game.”
The re-making of Ovechkin began in training camp when Oates asked Ovechkin to move from left wing to right. Ovechkin was resistant at first, moving back to left wing after a handful of games.
Oates insisted he give the right side a second try and after netting just two goals in his first 10 games, Ovechkin has 23 goals in his last 29 games.
“It’s respect,” Oates said. “He never met me before. 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, with private conversations and he had to trust me.
“It takes a little time and hopefully he does now. We’re going in the right direction. As I’ve said, I give him the ultimate compliment for doing it. He’s been very, very successful playing his off-side and just meeting me and changing and doing it for the team and for himself it’s really good.”
One example of Ovechkin’s evolution as an offensive player came in the second period when he crashed the net and deflected a Jack Hillen shot over Tampa goalie Ben Bishop.
“When has he ever done that before?” Oates wondered. “It’s because he’s around the puck more.”
Another came in the closing minute, when Oates tapped Ovechkin on the shoulder and sent him out to protect a lead.
"I told him that 'You are the man,'" Oates said. "We know that and I want to give you every opportunity to succeed and be the man for us.”
Oates likes to chart the number of times Ovechkin touches the puck in a game and there have been many games that the number exceeds 50. Logic suggests the more Ovechkin touches the puck, the better the chances of the Caps winning games.
“He's a leader and I think that's why we've been so successful,” rookie defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “I think he's an explosive player and a lot of guys feed off that. It’s not just his scoring, but the way he plays all-around: his physical presence and his playmaking abilities and the way he plays.”
It’s no coincidence that the Capitals’ turnaround this season has coincided with Ovechkin’s resurgence.
Since beginning the season 2-8-1 the Capitals have gone 18-9-1 and now have sole possession of first place in the Southeast, two points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets. The Caps have nine games remaining; the Jets have eight.
“Right now I feel pretty good,” Ovechkin said. “We’re winning games and that’s the most important thing. Of course I’m happy I’m scoring goals but in the beginning of the year it was a pretty hard time for all of the organization and right now we’re back on track.”