Alex Ovechkin scored three goals in Saturday’s 5-1 win over the New Jersey Devils, recording his first hat trick in more than two years. Despite that offensive outburst, Ovechkin might actually have played an even better game two nights before in a 3-2 loss to New Jersey, a game in which he failed to record a point.
“He’s been playing really well lately,” says Caps general manager George McPhee. “I thought Thursday was his best game of the year even though there was no production. He was a handful out there, had two or three breakaways, was creating scoring chances and was playing hard.
“Obviously we want him playing like that every night. We’re getting closer to that. It’s been a good change in a lot of ways.”
The “change” McPhee refers to is the much talked and written about move of Ovechkin to right wing.
One of the many tall tasks facing Caps coach Adam Oates as he took over behind the Washington bench at the start of this lockout-shortened season was that of re-establishing the Caps’ captain to superstar status.
After averaging 54 goals per season through the first five campaigns of his NHL career, Ovechkin dipped to more ordinary totals of 32 goals in 2010-11 and 38 last season.
“Alex is obviously the marquee guy on this team,” Oates told me last summer. “But he and I are going to have an understanding that he’s got to play the game the same way the rest of the team is going to play. In that respect, nobody is more important than the team. But he will also know that I have his back. We will come to an understanding and I hope to get the best out of Alex Ovechkin. He is going to lead us to the promised land.”
That may be a two-way street. Lately, it seems like Oates is helping to lead Ovechkin to the promised land.
Oates believes firmly that moving Ovechkin – a right-handed shooting left wing – from his customary spot on the left side to the right wing will lead to more touches of the puck, better scoring chances and make the Caps’ bullish winger more difficult to defend and play against.
During his career as an assistant coach in Tampa Bay and New Jersey, Oates had success with similar switches of the Lightning’s Martin St. Louis and the Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk.
After a few speed bumps early in the season, the move of Ovechkin to the right side is starting to pay some dividends for both the player and the team.
Ovechkin started the season on the right side for the Caps’ first three games, but struggled and requested to be moved back to his comfort zone on the left side. Oates acquiesced, but made it clear that the experiment was not an experiment and it was not over. Washington was 0-3 in those first three games with Ovechkin on the right side; it went 1-2-1 with him back on the left.
With the Caps slogging along with a 1-5-1 mark after seven games, Ovechkin was moved back to the right side. He has remained there since and the results have been illuminating.
In his first seven games this season, Ovechkin fired a total of 22 shots on goal. That translates to an average of just 257 shots on net over the course of a normal 82-game NHL campaign. Prior to this season, Ovechkin’s single-season career low for shots on goal was the 303 he took last season.
Ovechkin attempted a total of 45 shots in those first seven games; 12 were blocked and 11 missed the net. He also recorded two goals and an assist for three points in those seven games.
In his last 10 games – all of which have been spent playing on the right side – Ovechkin has totaled 53 shots on goal and 101 shots attempted; 26 were blocked and 22 missed. That rate would translate to a total of 435 shots on net over a full 82-game season, a figure that would rank as the third-highest mark of his NHL career.
Were Ovechkin to accumulate 435 shots on net in a season and score at his career shooting rate of 11.9%, he would finish an 82-game campaign with 52 goals, or just below the pace he established in his first five seasons.
Heading into Tuesday night’s NHL action, Ovechkin has 75 shots on goal for the season, one off the league leading pace being set by the Islanders’ John Tavares and the Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel. Both have played more games than Ovechkin.
While Ovechkin had gone more than two years without a hat trick before Saturday, his drought of not consistently getting shots on net extended back even further.
Ovechkin has had three or more shots on net in each of his last 10 games, the first time he has had a streak of that length since Nov. 28-Dec. 18, 2010. The last date of that last 10-game streak coincides with the eighth straight loss of the Capitals’ under-the-HBO-microscope eight-game losing streak (0-6-2), a skein that led then-bench boss Bruce Boudreau to overhaul the way his team played in the middle of that 2010-11 season.
(For much more on what happened to the Capitals at that juncture, do yourself a favor and read this fine analysis from Jon Press at Japers’ Rink.)
That last streak of 10 straight games with three or more shots on net wasn’t even the first of its kind for the Caps’ captain that season. Ovechkin started the 2010-11 campaign by reeling off 15 straight games with three or more shots on goal; streaks such as those were general the norm for Ovechkin for the first five seasons of his NHL career rather than the rarity they’ve become for the last three.
Ovechkin opened that 2010-11 season in more or less “normal” fashion, with 10 goals and 32 points in 25 games through the end of November. Thereafter, he produced 22 goals and 53 points in 54 games the rest of the way.
That midseason change in system allowed the Caps to finish with 107 points and a fourth straight Southeast Division crown, but it also resulted in a 32-goal season for Ovechkin in 2010-11, the lowest total of his NHL career. Since Dec. 2010, the Caps have been a more defensive team, and Ovechkin simply wasn’t getting as many touches or quality scoring chances from his left wing spot.
The permanent move to the right side at the beginning of February has produced a multitude of chances, so much so that the Caps captain might be near the top of the NHL’s leader board in goals with a bit more luck and some better finish. Had he not missed a pair of empty-net chances late in games earlier in the season, he’d be in double-digits now as Oates is quick to remind.
Two of Ovechkin’s three goals on Saturday came at even strength, both of them on the rush.
“He got one on the power play,” says Oates, “one coming out of the zone where he stayed on the right side and one where he came late. The real reason we switched him was I wanted him to get more touches.”
Oates and video coach Brett Leonhardt chart those touches on a game-by-game basis for later review with Ovechkin.
“We mark them, and we mark them mostly for me and him to talk about things privately,” says Oates of tracking the touches. “Because I really felt ahead of time that that’s what would happen, that he would get the puck more. I just keep track of it to show him when he wants, to see where he’s getting it, how often he’s getting it, and if there are opportunities for more touches.”
Oates said from the start that he wanted to be a communicator as a coach, and his handling of Ovechkin is a first-rate example of that philosophy.
“I think Adam has been outstanding in the way they have communicated and in the way they are getting along,” says McPhee of the Caps’ coach/captain relationship. “It looks like a great relationship. In any successful organization, your top players have to be on board.”
As mentioned at the top, Ovechkin had a plethora of touches in his Thursday night game against the Devils, and he has generally had the puck on his stick a lot more since moving permanently to the right side.
“The Thursday night game was incredible,” says Oates. “He had the puck more in two periods than he has had in any game this year. And we’re talking about having the puck with a little bit of time – not a lot of time, but a little. Maybe the second goal [on Saturday] is a result of that, where he gets it, it’s a standard play, but it’s one of the best snipers in the world getting the puck one more time [in a situation] that he didn’t last year, and he releases a shot and scores. That’s what it’s about.”
Although his three breakaway chances in Thursday’s game did not produce any lamp-lighters, Ovechkin scored early in the second period of Saturday’s game off the rush, taking a feed from Mike Ribeiro who got the puck from Jason Chimera.
“I thought the first goal the other night was great,” says Oates. “Chimmer started in the d-zone, he got it, a couple of passes, Chimmer drove wide, used his speed, which let Alex come late. Chimmer found Mike and Mike found Alex. It was the whole evolution of a play and that’s the way it’s supposed to be at times.”
The second goal came early in the third, and it gave the Caps a lead they would not relinquish. It turned out to be the 57th game-winning goal of Ovechkin’s career. On that one, Ovechkin backed New Jersey defenseman Anton Volchenkov into the attack zone, then used him as a screen, threading his shot through the defenseman’s legs. It’s the type of goal Ovechkin once scored frequently from the left side, before the league seemed to catch on to the trick.
“The second goal which was a huge goal,” says Oates. “It was probably his least dangerous shot out of the last couple of games with all the breakaways he has had, etcetera. So it was great for him that it went in.”
When Caps center Nicklas Backstrom was told that Ovechkin’s hat trick was his first in more than two years, he had a quick retort.
“Now you guys can ask and wonder if he’s back,” said Backstrom. “But he’s always been here.”
Backstrom may be right. It’s possible that the Caps themselves – or at least the way the Caps chose to play these last two-plus years – were all that was holding Ovechkin back. The last 10 games of what is only going to be a 48-game season is a small sample size. Although those numbers suggest that Ovechkin is producing both shots and goals at a rate consistent with what he did for his first five seasons in the league, we’ll reserve judgment for now.
One thing does seem certain. When it’s played correctly, Oates’ system is the most conducive to scoring of the last three systems the Caps have had in recent seasons. The Capitals scored 2.67 goals per game in 2010-11 and 2.66 goals per game last season. Despite scoring three or fewer goals in each of their first 11 games of 2012-13, the Caps now have tallied four or more goals in four of their last six games.
On the season, Washington is 12th in the league with an average of 2.82 goals per game.
“Guys still need to do what guys need to do to win,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer, “and that consists of blocking shots, chipping pucks out, chipping pucks in. But you don’t want to take their creative ability out of their game.
“We tried to win games 1-0, 2-1, tight defensive games, which is fine because it worked for us last year for quite a while. But you’ve got to keep those star players happy. You have to keep those goal-scorers happy by giving them offensive opportunities.
“When [Ovechkin]’s going, we’re a lot better team. We need him to have more games like the last two that he has played. Just because he had a hat trick doesn’t mean that he had an amazing game. He did, but he also had a really good game the [game] before and he didn’t score any goals.”
Ovechkin may have been reluctant at first to make the move to the right side, but he seems to be embracing the move now that it’s giving him more time with the puck and more and better scoring chances.
“He does and I hope so,” says Oates, when asked if Ovechkin seems to be settling in comfortably on the right side. “If you watch it, the Rangers game [on Feb. 17] he gets 14 [attempted] shots. Thursday night he gets three breakaways, and all of a sudden [Saturday] he gets three goals and he’s getting all these touches.
“One thing about having the puck more, it engages him in the game more. Watching him in the past, I felt the only thing that got him into the game was one-timers on the power play. If he gets a few one-timers, all of a sudden he feels good about himself because that’s his go-to shot, and next thing you know he is flying. Well what if you don’t get those one-timers? You’ve still got to figure out a way to get yourself into the game and I think that’s with touches. A guy who is used to scoring wants the puck. He wants it to touch his stick.”
He wants it on his stick, and it’s been there.
“Yeah, I think the chances are there,” said Ovechkin after Saturday’s game. “Just sometimes I feel the puck just doesn’t want to go in. Today it was that kind of game where every shot goes through. It’s kind of nice.”