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Alex Ovechkin in goal-a-game form as NHL playoffs begin
Question of the Day
Alex Ovechkin had his doubts early on. He trusted Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates enough to try right wing, but after three games, one assist and zero goals, the face of the franchise asked to go back.
"I tell him, 'OK, Oatesy, let's put me back on the left side,'" Ovechkin recalled. "And he put me back and after that we watched the video and he tells me and he show me the video and I started to believe in it."
It was as simple as that. From then on, Ovechkin didn't entertain being anything other than a right wing, and once the puck started to go in, he finished with the most goals in the NHL (32) and emerged as a top Hart Trophy candidate as league MVP.
Oates doesn't want to take any credit for Ovechkin's Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy-winning season, but the rookie coach's bold move and his star's acceptance paved the way to an impressive run to the playoffs.
"It says a lot about Adam's ability to convince the player and to communicate properly with him and keep him on his side," general manager George McPhee said. "It says a lot about Alex. You've got a two-time MVP and everything else, and if your top guys aren't coachable, you'd have no chance of having any kind of success. And he bought in."
Ovechkin's resurgence came in the form of 23 goals and 13 assists in the Caps' final 23 games as they went 17-4-2.
Ovechkin being a goal-a-game scorer is something he and Oates expected in mid-March, even as the rest of the league was wondering if he'd ever return to his form from several years ago.
"I look at it like he gets a breakaway every game," Oates said March 15. "That's 80."
It clicked, and McPhee could see why it hadn't been there before Oates arrived.
"It had gotten stale on the left side, it had gotten a little bit too predictable," McPhee said. "[Ovechkin] came into this league just a handful for any team, any player, to try and play against. Teams started making adjustments to play him over the years."
Oates told McPhee in interviewing for the head coaching vacancy that he wanted to move Ovechkin to right wing. "It was a big part of choosing Adam," McPhee said.
Oates could show examples like what he helped do for Ilya Kovalchuk with the New Jersey Devils and for Martin St. Louis with the Tampa Bay Lightning. McPhee didn't question the idea because the Devils assistant had the data and video to back it up.
Oates believed Ovechkin did a great job playing his "off side" at left wing. Leading the league in goals twice and points once in his first seven NHL seasons wasn't bad.
When his captain and highest-paid player questioned skating on the right wing in January, Oates went back to his "security blanket" for the Caps' fourth game, Jan. 25 at New Jersey.
"Like I said to him all along, 'It's going to be your call, eventually,'" Oates recalled. "I wanted to keep testing the water, but it's going to be his call."
Oates put Ovechkin with grinders Joey Crabb and Jay Beagle instead of skill players like Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer, emphasizing their ability to play "north-south" hockey.
That's when Ovechkin saw the benefits of playing right wing. "We got to a point where he said, 'Sure,' and I'm glad he had some success and he can keep going," Oates said.
It didn't happen immediately. Instead, it took until Ovechkin was reunited with Backstrom in mid-March for him to light up the rest of the Eastern Conference.
But he did all of it at right wing.
"He seems to be a much more visible player on the ice," Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "You notice him a lot more when you're watching the tape, and you notice him when you're watching the highlights that he's on the ball."
Not only did it make him more of a task for opponents to contain, but changing positions earned him respect and admiration from the coaching staff.
"He's played his whole life on one side of the ice and [made] all the reads, and he was willing to switch. And he switched for, obviously, himself but for the guys and the team and that's what we asked," Oates said. "No matter which way you cut it, it's very unselfish."
What changed to spark this scorching stretch depends on who you ask. Ovechkin and Oates insisted that the chances were there during the first half of the season; the results just weren't there yet.
"Sometimes you need some luck to put it in," Ovechkin said. "Of course, you have to find a way to find this luck. It can't be luck all the time. Sometimes you have to score maybe not typical goal but maybe you have to go to the middle of the ice and front of the net and find the rebound and maybe tip the puck. That kind of goals I have this year, too."
That one-timer on the power play was responsible for plenty of goals, but Ovechkin found different looks at the net, too.
"It's good that he scores from different situations," Backstrom said. "You know he's a great shooter. It doesn't really matter where you give him the puck on the ice, he's going to get a good shot, a chance to score, wherever it is."
Scoring more than anyone else, a 55-goal pace in an 82-game season, put Ovechkin in the discussion for the Hart Trophy, along with Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks and John Tavares of the New York Islanders.
Ovechkin conceded being happy he and the Caps overcame a slow start, but he brushed off worrying about being MVP.
"It's not my choice," he said. "If I'm going to be nominated, I'm going to be nominated. If not, if somebody else is going to be. It's lots of great players out there who deserve it, too."
Oates knows he's biased, but in recent weeks he hasn't been bashful about endorsing Ovechkin for MVP. Once more, he brought it up on the final night of the regular season.
"One of the reasons I think he should win the Hart is because of his unselfishness to change positions for the club, that he was willing to listen to a coaching staff and switch," Oates said. "I'm glad for him he's had success and he's helped our team grow."
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