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Gr8 Expectations

Caps captain captures an NHL record eighth Rocket Richard, shows no signs of slowing down

by Ben Raby @BenRaby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

If any Capitals player had a built-in excuse to ease into the 2018-19 season, Alex Ovechkin likely would have topped that list.

Sure, there are always high expectations on the face of the franchise, but after leading the Capitals to an elusive Stanley Cup title last spring, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and then turning 33 just before the start of the season, would there really have been much angst if Ovechkin took the foot off the gas just a little a bit in his 14th NHL campaign?

Turns out, it's a moot point. Rather than see his production dip, Ovechkin seemingly carried the momentum from last spring into this season. In fact, a case can be made that this past regular season was among Ovechkin's best.

"Right from the first day of [training] camp, and even when he showed up early for camp, he's been ready to go," says head coach Todd Reirden. "He liked what he tasted last year at the end of the year and he wants to get back."

According to his teammates, Ovechkin looked determined when they reconvened in September. He arrived in terrific shape and acknowledged that he felt "looser" having finally reached the pinnacle of his sport.

While a Stanley Cup run could take a toll on some 30-somethings playing heavy minutes, the experience last spring seems to have reenergized Ovechkin, who is just as hungry to win a second title.

"I think that time I spent with the Cup [last summer]," Ovechkin says, "sharing my happiness with my teammates, with the fans, with all of the people who I know, it was something special. You just want to do it over and over again because when you taste it, you don't want to let it go."

The memories from last year are still fresh and Ovechkin believes the Capitals boast a healthy swagger as they look to join the 2016 and 2017 Penguins as the only teams to repeat as champions in the last 20 years.

"It's a whole different atmosphere," he says. "Even in the locker room. We know what we're capable of - maybe before we also knew what we were capable of - but now we know how to play hockey. We know how to play championship hockey."

For Ovechkin, that's meant rounding out his 200-foot game and embracing more defensive responsibilities. Ovechkin showed tremendous commitment last spring without the puck and it's been more of the same this season.

Reirden challenged Ovechkin at the start of the year to handle even more defensive responsibilities, frequently turning to him in late-game situations with the Capitals protecting one-goal leads.

"It's part of his growth," Reirden says. "It's amazing to talk about growth with a guy that's had the career that he's had, that he can still find ways to improve. I've got a lot of time for that type of person and that type of character."

As Ovechkin again showed an increased commitment defensively this past season, it did not come at the expense of his goal-scoring prowess.

Among the highlights of Ovechkin's regular season was a career-best 14-game scoring streak in which he notched 17 goals and 23 points from Nov.16-Dec.15. The Capitals posted a 12-2-0 record over that stretch.

Late in the season, as the Capitals inched closer to a fourth consecutive Metropolitan Division title, Ovechkin secured his eighth-career 50-goal campaign. By the end of the regular season, Ovechkin had his NHL record eighth-career goal-scoring title.

"He has the best shot ever," says goaltender Braden Holtby. "So, it doesn't come as a surprise to us. But I think the biggest thing with him is the last couple of years, he's really focused on all areas of his game and still been able to put up goals. I think that's a big reason why we've had success and why he's had success. It's pretty amazing to watch and see him shoot a puck. It's like nothing else."

Ovechkin has also quietly improved his offensive game at even strength. After ranking 67th in the League with 16 even-strength goals in 2016-17, Ovechkin has scored an NHL-best 65 even-strength markers in the two years since. That's no accident.

Following that 2016-17 season, Ovechkin was reminded that his power-play goals and the patented one-timer from the left faceoff circle would seemingly always be there. If he wanted to remain among the elite in an increasingly 'Young Man's' game, though, he'd have to do more at even strength. Ovechkin made a conscious effort to work on his speed and conditioning in the summer of 2017.

In the two years since, Ovechkin has shown an extra spring in his step, scoring more goals off the rush, or late in shifts or games. Ovechkin says he's felt fresh.

"We add some new stuff to my training," he says, "but overall during the whole year, we stuck to the system that works for me. Sometimes after a game, I felt like 'Did I even play? Am I even tired? Jesus, I want to play more.'"

To an extent Ovechkin has reinvented himself in his 30s, continuing to find ways to remain effective at an age when many superstars see an inevitable decline.

Ovechkin's 33 even-strength tallies in 2018-19 were the most by a player age 33 or older since 1972. Ovechkin, who finished with 51 goals on the year, is the third oldest player in NHL history to hit 50 overall for the season. Ovechkin edged Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl to win his eighth career Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy. Ovechkin broke a tie with Bobby Hull and became the first player in NHL history to finish atop the League's goal-scoring race eight times.              

"It's almost unfair that you kind of just expect him to score 50 every year," says T.J. Oshie. "But the little things that we notice - him on the backcheck, him on the forecheck, getting hits and wearing down the other teams' D and blocking shots- those are things I think he's a great job of these last couple of years and it's turning him into a complete 200-foot player and we're able to have him out in those big moments and know he's going to take care of us."

The Capitals say they have seen a rejuvenated Ovechkin this season with last year's Stanley Cup title potentially serving as a catalyst for more success to come.

"That was amazing for him," Reirden says. "It was something he worked hard for and that he worked at for years and I think sometimes until you achieve that, you don't know how special it is and I think it's been a driving force for him. It's been his sole thought this year and that says a lot about his leadership and his growth as a leader in this game. It's something that I think he's done an excellent job of."

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