He wheels around the ice with verve. It isn’t important ice time – just the often-perfunctory game-day skate before the evening’s contest – but there is joy on his face, in his wide gap-tooth smile. His jersey is tucked into the back of his pants, a sartorial style still legal in practice. When he darts towards the goal, winding up one of his potent wrist shots like an archer with a powerful bow, his tongue wags, an echo of Michael Jordan.
Alex Ovechkin is, once again, on a Jordan-like plane. After two mediocre seasons, and then a slow start last year – “it kind of embarrasses me,” he said of early results last winter – Ovechkin resurrected his game. As he switched to right wing from left, he won his third Hart Trophy for most valuable player – and his extraordinary run has cleanly rolled into the 2013-14 campaign, an extended goal-a-game pace not seen in more than a decade.
With 10 goals in 11 games this season, Ovechkin now has punched in 32 pucks in his past 32 regular-season contests stretching back to mid-March, almost double the goals of anyone else in the same span. The National Hockey League hasn’t witnessed scoring like this since 2001, when another Russian sniper, Pavel Bure, was a menace to goaltenders.
“I just enjoy my time right now to play hockey,” Ovechkin said on Monday midday in Vancouver, before his Washington Capitals were set to meet the Canucks at night.
For several years, hockey wasn’t fun. Ovechkin grated under the defence-first systems of former Capitals coaches, toward the end of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure and the one year of Dale Hunter. His production plummeted.
But under Adam Oates, the Hall of Fame playmaker who took over the Capitals for the 2013 season, Ovechkin has thrived.
The 28-year-old star only hints at “lots of reasons” why he struggled, but has enjoyed the offensive rein Oates handed him, a boon as everything comes together for him.
Off the ice, the man who loved the thump of nightclubs has found some calm, engaged to the Russian tennis player Maria Kirilenko. “I’m the same guy,” he told The Washington Post in a profile in September. “I’m growing up – be not like a wolf in the forest anymore.”
On the ice, he credits his linemates and, more important, the regular chance to pull the trigger. If there is something a goal-scorer like Ovechkin enjoys, it is to shoot the puck. He leads the league in shots – as he has in his best past years – and if he maintained his early pace he could break Phil Esposito’s all-time shots record.
Ovechkin knows he carries a “hot stick” – but the pace of production is not paramount in his mind. He has three MVP trophies but has never made it past the second round of the NHL playoffs and while he has mostly excised the stinging memory of failing at the 2010 Olympics, the pressure to perform in Sochi, Russia, in February is immense. At 28, individual records begin to matter less – even if he himself knows a goal-a-game in this era of hockey is mind-blowing.
“Right now, it’s very hard to do that,” he said. “If anything, it’s impossible. Of course, you want to break records and all that kind of stuff but, you know, if you do it, you do it. If not it’s okay.”
Monday was the first time Ovechkin and the Capitals visited Vancouver in a couple years – but coach John Tortorella knew the visitors well. Tortorella’s New York Rangers twice lost to the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, and then twice beat the Caps, in the second round and, last season, in the first. Three of the four series went to seven games.
“You guys know what type of player he is,” said Tortorella. “I don’t want to talk too much about Alex Ovechkin. It’s not just him. They have some quality offensive people. And I don’t think you stop, completely, some of the top offensive players. You just try to limit.”
Former Boston goaltender Tim Thomas has likened Ovechkin’s wrist shot to something like a slider one might see from a pitcher in baseball. Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo said the wrist shot can definitely feel like it bends when launched from a distance. In any case, Luongo was succinct.
“He’s got a good shot, man.”
This year it’s been bolstered by the power play. Of Ovechkin’s 10 goals and 15 points, four goals and eight points – roughly half the output – have been scored with the man-advantage.
Luongo said he does play “a little bit different” against Ovechkin, but said: “I can’t give away my secrets.” Like his coach, Luongo knows it’s not about stopping Ovechkin, it’s limiting his impact.
“You can [only] contain a guy so much with that much skill,” Luongo said. “Eventually they’ll find a way to score.”
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