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Ovechkin again focused on only hockey

Thursday, 01.08.2009 / 11:47 AM / 2009 NHL All-Star Game

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

Alex Ovechkin didn't want to talk much about the trip he took to Russia earlier this season to visit his ailing maternal grandfather.

But the Washington Capitals superstar did admit the journey home helped him, likely in more ways than one. Not only did Ovechkin get to stand by his grandfather's hospital bedside during his week-long trip, which required him to miss back-to-back games for the first time in his career, it appears the trip allowed him to clear his head and re-focus on the ice too.

While it should be noted that Ovechkin told the Washington Post he didn't learn of his grandfather's illness until his father called him prior to the Capitals' game against Dallas on Oct. 25, it's hard to ignore the timing of his production.

Prior to leaving on Oct. 26, Ovechkin was off to the slowest start in his four-year career with only 2 goals and 3 assists in eight games. He hadn't scored in six straight. After returning Nov. 2, he was the NHL's Player of the Month for November with 25 points in 14 games.

Ovechkin is now -- incredibly -- ahead of his own pace from last season. He has 53 points on 27 goals and 26 assists through the team's first 39 games this season after producing 50 points on 30 goals and 20 assists at the 40-game mark last season. Thursday, he was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team for the Jan. 24-25 All-Star Weekend in Montreal.

"We didn't know he had to go home until he went home and when that happens you think, 'Oh, you know what, geez he didn't look like he was into it,' but I think sometimes we make that up or find reasons why people aren't scoring," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He came back and said, 'Holy smokes, I know I'm the best in the League and I'm way behind. I better pick up my gear.' Now he gets it in gear."

The latter is likely closer to the truth than the former, but Ovechkin's teammates aren't discounting the idea that he found comfort in seeing his ailing 83-year-old grandfather.

Konstantin Selinevich, Ovechkin's business manager, told the Washington Post that Nikolay Kabayev helped raise Ovechkin.

"It must have made a difference, at least a little bit," second-year center Nicklas Backstrom told NHL.com. "If you're going to play hockey you have to think about hockey and not the other stuff. I think that was big for him to go home and I supported him. I think it was good for him."

Ovechkin believes his scoring touch returned only because the pucks started going into the net. There's some truth to that as well. He was averaging five shots on goal per game before leaving for Russia. He has since picked up the pace to average 6.3 shots on goal per game and is once again leading the NHL in a category he's owned since his rookie season of 2005-06.

"It was just (for) a moment," Ovechkin said of his scoring drought. "I didn't score in probably 10 games, but the biggest thing was the team was winning. It's always great when you have other players that can score goals. The team is more than one player."

"If anybody really watched the games, he was playing the same game, but they just weren't going in," Capitals forward Matt Bradley told NHL.com. "Now they are going the way they usually do for him and we all know what happens when that happens."

Ovechkin's enthusiasm and will become contagious, the way it has been since he returned from Russia.

"It's the defensive side of him that hockey enthusiasts don't see or pick up on. He's usually the first guy back, stopping where he has to stop in the defensive zone. He's responsible and you can see it now when he's penalty killing a lot, and he's out there at the end of the games where, in the past, if we were winning he might not be in there. He's turned into the best all around player in the League, not just the best scorer."
-- Chris Clark

He's still the same person and the same player he was last season when he scored 65 goals and finished with 112 points to win the Hart Trophy as the League's MVP. He's as affable as ever, the funniest guy in the dressing room.

"He's been that way he is since he came here," Capitals defenseman Mike Green told NHL.com. "He hasn't changed and that's the good thing about a guy like him. He's a superstar in this League and his personality doesn't change."

Maybe not, but this season Ovechkin says his expertise has while Boudreau commented on his strength.

Ovechkin was 215 pounds as a rookie and 222 last season. Now he's right around 230 and said he's been using the same personal trainer in Russia for the past two years.

"It's not overweight," Boudreau said. "It's his body maturing and getting stronger."

The added weight (err, muscle) hasn't affected his speed.

The experience has allowed him to use that speed to his advantage.

Ovechkin has won a Southeast Division title. He's been to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He's led Russia to the gold medal at the World Championships. He's not a know-it-all, but he has never been more comfortable in the NHL than he is right now.

"My first couple of years I was running around all the time and it didn't matter if I was going forward or going back," Ovechkin said. "I couldn't read situations. Right now I can read situations, when I have to skate or pass it or relax. I have more experience right now."

 
Capitals captain Chris Clark, who has done more watching than playing over the past season and a half, told NHL.com Ovechkin's experience is showing up on the other side of the red line, where his attention to detail has never been better.

"It's the defensive side of him that hockey enthusiasts don't see or pick up on," Clark said. "He's usually the first guy back, stopping where he has to stop in the defensive zone. He's responsible and you can see it now when he's penalty killing a lot, and he's out there at the end of the games where, in the past, if we were winning he might not be in there. He's turned into the best all around player in the League, not just the best scorer."

With Clark out of the lineup, Ovechkin has also developed as a leader. His personality in the dressing room and his presence on the ice are both stronger than ever, especially now that he's totally comfortable speaking English.

"He's has that quality just because guys see how hard he plays," Clark said. "If a 50-goal scorer and the best player in the League can run through a guy or at least finish his check, why can't everybody do it? You just respect that so much out of him."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.