- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2013

Fans at Tampa Bay Times Forum serenaded Alex Ovechkin with boos every time he touched the puck Saturday night. Loud and drawn out in the first period as Ovechkin was firing away on the power play, they became almost nonexistent the rest of the way.

But it wasn’t because Ovechkin’s shot found the back of the net and silenced the crowd. Instead, it was because the Washington Capitals superstar was almost invisible for much of the season-opening loss.

“Everybody [was] excited and you try doing more than you usually do,” Ovechkin said. “I think [in the] first period I play well, and after that I feel kind of not that good.”

The captain finished with four shots, and none in the game’s final 49 minutes.

Part of the problem was Ovechkin needing to make a rapid adjustment to the right wing after previously playing on the left side. While his teammates were hesitating at times trying to play new coach Adam Oates‘ system, Ovechkin had to deal with that and his own issues.

“Because I’m on the right side, I have to think more,” he said. “Of course, if we’re going to have chances, we have to use it. I think all our line play [was] not that good in the second and third [periods]. I feel everybody was kind of lost out there.”

Ovechkin and linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson finished with zero points against the Lightning. They know and their teammates know that can’t continue during Tuesday night’s home opener against the Winnipeg Jets.

“They’re our first line the other night and we count on them to score, whether it’s power play or five-on-five, and hopefully tip the rink a little bit in our favor where as a line they might not score, but they’re getting zone time and letting us stay in the other team’s end,” Oates said. “I’m sure they can do a better job of that.”

After the first 10 minutes when the Caps had three power plays, the top line wasn’t much of a factor. Forget about even scoring; they were hardly ever on the attack.

“We make some stupid plays out there sometimes in the neutral zone and offensive zone. If you watch the whole game, we have only a couple rushes and we never stop in their zone,” Ovechkin said. “Me, Backie and JoJo have to play much better in the offensive zone.”

Johansson had a neutral-zone turnover that led to Cory Conacher’s goal Saturday night. Backstrom took an ill-timed tripping penalty that set up a five-on-three penalty kill and paved the way for Martin St. Louis’ game-winner.

Those are the kinds of mistakes that led Ovechkin and his linemates to criticize themselves.

“It was a tough game,” Johansson said. “We could’ve done better, and we need to do better for us to win games.”

No Caps forward played more than Ovechkin, part of Oates‘ apparent philosophy to get the most out of his most talented scorer. With Ovechkin trying to do so much, it took a toll.

“I think he played a lot in the first. There was times in the second and third that he went in bursts as opposed to maybe staying together with the other two guys,” Oates said. “And I think that’s just growing pains and stuff that they’ll solve soon.”

So much of the growing pains have to do with Ovechkin’s switch to the right wing. While Oates was an assistant in Tampa Bay, he oversaw St. Louis’ left wing cameo, and while he was on staff with the New Jersey Devils last season he watched as Ilya Kovalchuk made the successful transition to the right side.

That’s why Oates will likely be patient with Ovechkin in the coming games.

There’s no point in pulling the plug on an experiment that the coach believes brings “balance” to Ovechkin’s game.

“It balances his game out and gives him the opportunity to get more pucks on both sides of the ice,” Oates said. “When I watched him in the past, I know his spot and I know what he loves. And I’m not taking that away. But we’re just trying to add and get him more touches.”

Hiccups are to be expected. Ovechkin fell into the habit of trying to fall back behind Backstrom along the left wing, a movement he has done for the past five years that now leaves him out of position.

“It’s not about the chemistry, it’s not about the system,” Ovechkin said. “It’s all about me, like where I have to go. It’s just a mentality.”

A mentality that Oates thinks he can find sooner rather than later.

“He’s an upper-echelon player; I think he’ll figure that stuff out,” he said. “I think there’s times he’ll be stuck. There will be times Nick will be stuck because he’s used to seeing him come from a different direction. But the goal is to get him more touches and to get Ovi more situations.”

The goal, at the end of the day, is to get Ovechkin in position to score goals — especially with the Caps letting consistent 20-plus-goal-scorer Alexander Semin depart in free agency.

Essentially, it’s the expectation for Ovechkin and the top line to play like it.

With “our system and our skill level,” Ovechkin said, “we have to play better.”

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