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The Great 8's Great Resurgence

Ovechkin's impact has been felt not only in the sheer volume of goals he's scored, but in the manner in which he's scoring them

by Ben Raby @BenRaby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

The power-play goals will seemingly always be there for Alex Ovechkin. His patented one-timer from the left faceoff circle remains one of the game's most lethal weapons.

At the end of nearly every practice or morning skate, Ovechkin can be spotted setting up shop from his office where he winds up for blast after blast.

Ovechkin scored a league-high 17 times with the man advantage last season. It marked the fifth consecutive year he led the circuit in power-play goals.

But in his 12th NHL campaign, Ovechkin experienced a dip in his even-strength production. He was limited to 33 goals last year - the second-lowest total in his career in an 82-game season - including a career-low 16 even-strength goals.

Internally, Ovechkin's modest decline raised a few red flags. Could a 32-year-old Ovechkin bounce back with a 40 or 50-goal season? Could he remain the league's biggest goal-scoring threat outside of the six-to-eight minutes a night that may be spent on the power play?

"He's going to have to think of ways he can evolve into a player that still has a major impact on the game," general manager Brian MacLellan said in the offseason.

The drop in Ovechkin's even-strength scoring last year led the Capitals to challenge their captain over the summer.

Ovechkin was encouraged to focus more on speed and conditioning in his offseason training as opposed to brute strength. With the NHL trending towards younger players with a greater emphasis on speed, the Capitals recognized that Ovechkin had to adapt to maintain his spot among the league's elite.

"Alex took it to heart that he has to keep evolving," says head coach Barry Trotz, who visited Ovechkin in Moscow last summer.

"It's tougher when you get older- you've got to work out harder. When you're younger you can probably cut corners because the body responds. But as you get older, the body has to be the driving force. I think he put a lot more work in those areas."

Ovechkin returned to Washington a month early for his 13th season and engaged in two-a-day training sessions. He spent his mornings skating at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex and his afternoons at the track at Washington Lee High School.

Months later, Ovechkin and the Capitals are reaping the benefits. As the Capitals hit the midpoint of the regular season atop the Metropolitan Division, a rejuvenated Ovechkin was among the catalysts.

Through 42 games this season, Ovechkin is tied for the NHL lead with 27 goals. Nineteen of those goals came at even-strength, already three clear of his 16 even-strength tallies in 82 games last season.

"The value of a player is in five-on-five," says Trotz. "Ovi is so unique and shoots it so well that you trust the production on the power play. But really where he can have a major impact for us is in the five-on-five game."

Through the first three months of the 2017-18 season, he has. Teammates point to a more engaged and active player, who is creating off the rush and recovering on the backcheck. Ovechkin is winning more battles for loose pucks, Trotz notes, and he is extending plays and keeping shifts alive thanks to an extra burst.

 "He's starting to skate again which is creating more unique offense," says Braden Holtby.

"He's going out there and trying to create stuff as opposed to waiting for others to create things for him. He's not just relying on his shot. He's realizing that he has more than just that to give."

Ovechkin's impact has been felt not only in the sheer volume of goals he's scored, but in the manner in which he's scoring them.

In a Nov. 22 home win against Ottawa, Ovechkin scored on a breakaway in the final seconds of the first period as he blew by Senators defenseman Cody Ceci, nine years his junior. Ovechkin turned on the jets inside his own blue line and sped through the neutral zone. By the time he received a feed from Alex Chiasson at the Ottawa blue line, there was nothing but open ice between him and goalie Craig Anderson. Ovechkin's goal capped off a one minute, 13 second shift - his longest of the game.

Video: OTT@WSH: Ovechkin goes bar down on speedy rush

Three nights later, Ovechkin matched his single-season career-high with his third hat-trick of the year in a 4-2 win in Toronto. Ovechkin's first goal saw him collect the puck in his own zone and take it the remaining 114 feet. Along the way, he deked Toronto's Leo Komarov in the neutral zone and got Morgan Rielly to bite on a fake before wiring a wrister past Curtis McElhinney.

Video: WSH@TOR: Ovechkin lasers quick shot past McElhinney

"He's been able to create some vintage goals," notes John Carlson, Ovechkin's teammate for nine seasons.

"I think that game in Toronto was one of the best games he's played in a few years," says Holtby.

Ovechkin added another breakaway goal in a win over the Sharks on Dec.4. After blocking a Brent Burns shot inside the Capitals blue line, Ovechkin followed the puck which had ricocheted into the neutral zone. He got to it first and outlasted Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon, who was trying to catch him up ice. Ovechkin then beat Martin Jones for his 578th career goal and passed Mark Recchi for 20th all-time in NHL history.

Video: SJS@WSH: Ovechkin passes Recchi on NHL goals list

"If I was passing a guy every week on the ladder of milestones and history, I'd be flying out there too," says Tom Wilson. "It seems like every game, he's passing some legend from back in the day. He's playing very good hockey and it's definitely contagious in our locker room when he's playing like that."

Wilson says he's also noticed Ovechkin moving his legs more on every shift as opposed to drifting or gliding.

"When I have the puck," Wilson says, "he's getting into a really good spot to either make a play or shoot the puck. He's playing with a lot of energy. I turned the puck over a couple of weeks ago and he was backchecking hard. He was the first guy back and caused another turnover."

"He's shown glimpses of a 19-year-old Ovi flying 100-miles-per-hour," Trotz says. "He's still capable when he wants to."

Although the elusive deep postseason run remains the ultimate goal for Ovechkin, there is no denying that the 2017-18 regular season is shaping up as another memorable campaign for No.8.

With another goal-scoring title within reach, Ovechkin could become the first player aged 32 or older to lead the league in goals since Phil Esposito, then 33, in 1974-75. Ovechkin could also become the first player with at least 1,000 career games under his belt to lead the league in goal scoring since Gordie Howe in 1962-63.

"He's obviously always been passionate," says Carlson, "but it seems that he's playing with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder."

Ovechkin's early-season surge also has him on pace for his eighth career 50-goal season. And despite averaging nearly a full minute more of ice-time per game this year, Ovechkin has shown few signs of slowing down.

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