- The Washington Times - Monday, April 8, 2013

Alex Ovechkin carried the Washington Capitals from the dregs of the Eastern Conference to first place in the Southeast Division with 15 goals and six assists in the past 12 games. But when he was asked about how fun the past couple of weeks have been, the captain had a curious response.

Unprompted, he put a spotlight on the vast change from coach Dale Hunter to Adam Oates.

“It’s always been fun, but I don’t want to talk about last year,” Ovechkin said. “This year is much different.”

And different was obvious Sunday night. Instead of sitting on the bench in a one-goal game and talking about the need to “suck it up” while playing fewer minutes under Hunter like he did last spring, Ovechkin was on the ice in a crucial late-game situation under Oates.

“It’s trust. That’s what I don’t have last year,” Ovechkin said. “When you have that kind of feelings, you just want to go out there, play for your team, for your coach and do your best.”

That Ovechkin is playing his best hockey in three years is at least in part a testament to Oates‘ trust. Putting the 27-year-old offensive superstar into all-around situations is what the Caps’ coach called “part of evolving his game.”

Oates won’t treat Ovechkin like a liability in one-goal games like Hunter did.

“I told him that: ‘You are the man, we know that, and I want to give you every opportunity to succeed and be the man for us,’” Oates said.

Hunter did not respond to a message seeking comment.

It’s impossible to forget Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals a year ago, when Ovechkin played a career-low 13:36 at the New York Rangers. Hunter talked about rolling four lines and repeated throughout the playoff run that he leaned on his offensive players when trailing and defensive players when holding a lead.

Hall of Famer Brett Hull wondered aloud in November, “Why would you play Ovechkin 12 minutes a game? That, to me, is the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard.”

Ovechkin isn’t a $9 million role player with Oates in charge.

“Every guy you put out there, you’re adding responsibility to their game,” Oates said. “And you want to make players grow. In a sense, to me a player should want to be there. That’s the ultimate compliment is when a coach puts you out there late in the game.”

Ovechkin used the word “trust.” For Oates, it was “respect.” Despite a Hall of Fame playing career, the rookie coach felt like he had to earn that with the former Hart Trophy winner when asking him to switch to right wing.

“He never met me before, and 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 and a private conversation and he had to trust me,” Oates said. “It takes a little time, and obviously I hope he does now.”

Ovechkin said just after the lockout ended that he and Oates had a better relationship than he and Hunter. Trust was forged in many conversations before and during the season.

But it goes without saying what it means for Ovechkin that he’s playing 20-plus minutes a game, no matter the score. His production in recent weeks is a reward for the right wing’s progress.

“I just get used to it,” Ovechkin said. “We still watch the video and we still look [at] my touches, my moments. It’s nice when you have that kind of trust from [the] team and from the coach.”

So much of the conversation around the Caps has concerned what’s different in Ovechkin’s game lately. Center Nicklas Backstrom said he and his teammate were “working harder.”

Perhaps it’s just part of the natural progression Oates expected.

“He’s got two tips in five games. When did he ever do that before? Because he’s around the puck more,” Oates said. “It’s what we’ve talked about in the last month, he’s getting more touches. I think because of that he’s just more involved in the game.”

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