-- So much has changed for Alex Ovechkin
since Feb. 21, 2010 and yet so much remains the same.
Ovechkin was at the pinnacle of his sport that day. His team, the Washington Capitals
had recently shot to the top of the NHL with a 14-game winning streak. The full array of his superpowers were on display during a 4-1 victory for his other team, Russia, in the Winter Olympics.
He crumpled the biggest star of the previous generation, the Czech Republic's Jaromir Jagr
, with a devastating open-ice hit. It led to a turnover and to a goal and was the turning point in a victory that sealed Russia's place in the quarterfinals. Fans in Washington were not only proud of their hero for his work on a global stage but also delighted to see their once hero-turned-villain on the receiving end of Ovechkin's punishing blow.
Three days later things began to go wrong. Not wrong for a normal person, or even a typical hockey player, but wrong for one of the best players of the world with expectations to match.
The list of disappointments has been hashed out and rehashed for the past 14 months, but now is the time for Ovechkin to put all of it -- the Olympics, the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the World Championships, even a bumpier than normal regular season -- far behind him.
"There's a lot of pressure on captain because he's the one who has to answer the questions when things go good or things go bad," Capitals defenseman Tom Poti
said. "He's got that pressure, but he's also one of the best players in the world so he's got that pressure too. It is kind of a double pressure on him this year when you throw in what happened last year.
"I think there's a ton of pressure on him, but he's someone who can rise to meet it."
Change has been the buzzword for Ovechkin and for his Capitals this season. Washington began the year back in its familiar perch at the top of the standings, but an eight-game losing streak, followed by more bouts of inconsistency, made for an adverse couple of months. During that time coach Bruce Boudreau
decided it was time for an identity shift, and the Capitals changed.
Offense had been the problem -- the Capitals didn't score enough to beat Montreal in the first round the previous spring and the goals had dried up again. Boudreau decided it was time to focus on defense and structure.
Ovechkin's offensive production slipped this season, partly because of this change. His 32 goals are 14 fewer than he's had in any previous campaign. After never finishing lower than fourth in the League in goals in his first five seasons, 13 players had more this year.
"Every player in the world likes to score goals, but we've gone through that," Boudreau said. "The best players have scored. The best players on our team have all kinds of awards and accolades and everything else. The one thing they haven't won is the big one. We're not thinking about that at this stage but they'll buy in to get to that point if we're lucky enough."
Added Ovechkin: "If it is good for the team I will do it. If Bruce tells me to do this, I'm going to do it. He's my coach and I'm going to listen to him no matter what."
There were some hiccups along the way, but the transformation took hold and the Capitals are now what pundits said they couldn't be in previous incarnations -- defensively responsible, able to play well in low-scoring, tight-checking, playoff-style contests.
Poti has missed much of this season because of a groin injury. He's been able to watch the evolution of the team, and specifically Ovechkin, take place.
"There are certain situations, especially late in games, where he's not out in the neutral zone looking for a breakaway pass," Poti said. "It is things like that. He's staying in his spot and watching his defenseman -- little subtle things like that.
"I think it is his willingness to not always be offense, offense, offense. He thinks a little bit more defensive at times. It has hurt him statistically a bit but at the same I think it has helped our team out a lot. He's our leader and he's the guy who's willing to sacrifice a little bit of offense for maybe staying in the zone a little bit longer this year and just concentrating a bit more on defense."
While it was clear months ago that this season was not going to be a vintage one for Ovechkin, glimpses of the guy who torched the League en route to back-to-back MVPs have been much more frequent of late.
He has 13 goals and 34 points in the past 27 games, almost quietly (for him) returning to a 100-plus point pace while the Capitals prepped for the postseason with a strong finish to claim the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
"He's playing hungrier and he's got that look in his eyes, so when he has that look that's a good look for us," Boudreau said.
His biggest rival, Sidney Crosby
, is not playing right now. Other players like the Sedin twins in Vancouver and Anaheim's Corey Perry
have dominated discussions about the best player in the League.
Ovechkin has been, again relatively, shielded from the typically massive amounts of attention he receives. Now that the playoffs have arrived, the focus will return as people are curious to see if the new-look Capitals are indeed better than the previous version.
There is no obvious favorite in the Eastern Conference, and plenty of questions remain for the Vancouver Canucks
. It could be that, despite all of the tribulations from the past 14 months, this is finally "the year" for Ovechkin and for his Capitals.
"I think it is time to show our best," Ovechkin said. "Right now it is [a] mature team. We have the experience from past couple years. It has been hard for us, but I think everybody's ready and everybody can't wait. We want to keep going."