Capitals star Alex Ovechkin entered the season with a simple question surrounding him: is scoring 50 goals still possible in the NHL? The game has evolved in recent years with an emphasis on speed, would he come with it?
After two games, Ovechkin has made a strong case for showing that he’s up to the task.
Ovechkin scored four goals in the Capitals’ 6-1 win Saturday over the Montreal Canadiens during their home opener at Capital One Arena — racking up a hat trick in the first period. It was Ovechkin’s second consecutive hat trick, tying a 100-year-old record for back-to-back hat tricks to open a season.
“When you’re feeling it, you just want to be out there more and more,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes you play well, but you didn’t score. Right now, we play well and we’re scoring goals.”
Ovechkin scored 50 goals just two years ago and has hit the mark seven times in his career. But last season — when Ovechkin played a career-low 18:22 per game and had his lowest scoring pace in five years — gave people pause. At media day last week, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said Ovechkin’s season was the “minimum” they expected from him.
Ovechkin lost four pounds before his 13th season. The Russian downplayed any significance to the weight loss, though Capitals coach Barry Trotz told Ovechkin he would need to make tweaks to remain effective at age 32. The two met over the summer in Russia to go over expectations.
During training camp, Trotz observed how Ovechkin’s “body composition” was better and made him stronger. Following Saturday’s game, Trotz added Ovechkin was skating better than previous years.
But few, if any, expected Ovechkin to have this scoring pace to start the year.
“As a professional athlete, the elite ones take a lot of pride in keeping a standard if you will,” Trotz said. “Standards are different for each player, but in Alex’s case, it’s production. Everybody says, ‘He can’t score 50 goals.’ So he might get in his mind, ‘I’m going to score 70 to prove everybody wrong.’”
Ovechkin ripped a shot past Canadiens goaltender Carey Price just 20 seconds into the game for his first goal. After T.J. Oshie added another goal 26 seconds later, Ovechkin scored on a power play to make it 3-0 less than three minutes into the game.
Suddenly, another hat trick was in play and Ovechkin delivered, scoring off a deflection from Evgeny Kuznetsov. On Thursday, the Russian scored a hat trick in less than seven minutes in the third period to help the Capitals rally from a 3-1 deficit against the Ottawa Senators.
By the end of the first period Saturday, Ovechkin had six goals on 12 shots in just 25:19 of ice time.
Ovechkin added his fourth goal of the game in the second period, getting a helpful bounce off a Canadiens’ stick to the back of the net. It was the fourth time in his career he had scored four goals in a game.
If there aren’t any major physical differences to Ovechkin’s game, his newfound efficiency is definitely notable. This year, six of Ovechkin’s seven goals have come primarily during five-on-five play. Last year, only 16 of Ovechkin’s 33 goals came even handed.
After two games, Ovechkin is scoring on an unsustainable 50 percent of his shots. That number will drop, but Ovechkin’s career high was set at 14.5 percent in 2013.
In the meantime, the Capitals are doing everything to help Ovechkin remain productive. Coming into the year, Trotz put Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on separate lines. The idea centered around a pick-your-poison scenario.
Ovechkin’s new linemates, Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana, have also complimented his game well. Both players use their to speed to create the necessary space for Ovechkin to work, while also remaining an offensive threat.
“You can see, he’s maybe more hungry,” Kuznetsov said. “I can see this in his eyes.”
And it appears Ovechkin is willing to try and score in new ways. Look no further than his third goal against the Canadiens when his net front presence caused a deflection.
“I think [former Capitals center] Brooks Laich said, ‘If you want money, you’ll go to the bank. If you want goals, go to the front of the net,’” Ovechkin joked.
Technically, the phrase is, “If you want bread go to the bakery, if you want money go to the bank, if you want goals go to the net.” But hey, close enough.
The sample size is small, however the Capitals needed a jump start to the season after a sluggish preseason. Trotz and his players slightly attributed the latter to the Capitals’ second-round playoff exit to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In two games, Ovechkin has helped shed any rust.
Will it continue? Ovechkin hopes so. He jokingly credited his sister-in-law being in town as the reason why he’s been so productive.
“Every time she’s in town, I score a hat trick,” Ovechkin said. “She’s leaving Monday, so I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to talk to someone to keep her here.”