- 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.”

SEE ALSO: Capitals notes: Michal Neuvirth settles in after long Verizon Center absence

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.”

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin sits on the boards in front of his bench with coach Adam Oates behind him during a first-period timeout in an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, March 19, 2013. The Penguins won 2-1. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin sits on the boards in front ... more >

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.”

Story Continues →