Alex Ovechkin hadn't scored a hat trick in more than two years. Even as Washington Capitals teammate Joel Ward asked, "How often you expect him to score hat tricks?" it was hard to believe that the most recent one before Saturday came Jan. 22, 2011.
Less than an hour after hats covered the ice at Verizon Center, center Nicklas Backstrom tried to calm the ensuing hype about Ovechkin's breakout performance.
"Well now you guys can ask if we realize he's back," Backstrom said. "But he's always been here."
Adam Oates knew that. The coach who so many figured would help Ovechkin rediscover his high-scoring potential stressed the positives for the first 16 games, as his captain piled up scoring chances but had just five goals to show for it.
"He's that kind of person who give me belief all the time," Ovechkin said. "Sometimes I have a bad game, I talk to him and he said, 'It's OK. Chance is there. It's going to come.'"
Even as Oates lamented Ovechkin missing three breakaways Thursday night, his message to the captain was the same thing.
"I text him. I said, 'Listen, I don't know. Puck just don't wanna, don't go through.' And he texts me back [and] says, 'It's going to come,'" Ovechkin said. "For a player, if you feel that kind of trust from a coach, coaching staff, it's very important."
It's the same two-way trust that led Ovechkin to believe in Oates' right wing experiment. And the same trust that had the Caps' coach speaking highly of his star's game despite a lack of goals.
Oates had to tell Ovechkin that there are important things he can do in the game other than scoring.
"You're doing the right things. It'll turn your way at some point," Oates said. "You have to believe in that. That's almost every life lesson: You got to do it right."
In Oates' eyes, Ovechkin was doing it right. He was buying into the switch to right wing and the transformation to a new system.
New Jersey Devils forward Patrik Elias, who saw Ilya Kovalchuk deal with his own growing pains making this change more than a year ago, noticed signs of progress from Ovechkin. And Elias knows what this aggressive system can do for a star player.
"What's good is if you have a success as an individual and you don't accomplish anything as a team. That's what it's all about," Elias said Friday. "I think it's a learning process."
After his learning process, Kovalchuk eventually took to the move and the system. And he's pretty sure Ovechkin will have similar success.
"He's never going to give up," Kovalchuk said. "He's just going to go and try even harder, practice harder and work on his [game], like what he can do best he will be even better. I don't think in my mind that he's not going to turn it around."
According to Oates, it won't be as much of a turnaround as Ovechkin getting rewarded for strong play. The coach in recent weeks cited how many times the $9 million winger touched the puck.
Thursday night, Ovechkin couldn't cash it. As he said, "Teammates see it." Saturday afternoon, teammates saw Ovechkin getting touches and making the most of his chances.
"He's a good player. He's going to find ways to score," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "He's got to make sure that he's working hard and he's working for his opportunities, and then he's dangerous. When he's not working for those opportunities and looking for someone else to do it, then he's not as effective."
That's where Elias' view of team vs. individual success comes in. This system, which Oates borrowed from Devils coach Peter DeBoer, can play into Ovechkin's strengths.
"It's fun. And you experience something special with your teammates and it doesn't take away your stats," Elias said. "It makes it a lot harder for the other teams to play against. You don't waste energy. You use energy for the right place, right things. And he'll be fine."
But it's an ongoing development. Even as Ovechkin grows more comfortable on right wing and figures out the angles, opposing defenses will try to adapt.
That's why Oates spends time at practice working with Ovechkin on shooting lanes and more.
"Talking about every little nuance," Oates said. "We are becoming football where there's not a single second of the game that isn't being analyzed."
If Ovechkin scores six goals every seven games, he'll be analyzed more even as the rest of the NHL marvels at his progress. But at that point, he'll have to remember Oates' advice about the other important things in hockey.
"You've got to be a complete player and you've got to grow as a player and you've got to get better," Oates said, "and he's no different than everybody."
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