ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin had Sunday off from his responsibilities as the captain of the Washington Capitals, a day after scoring his first hat trick in more than two years.
After enduring questions about his lack of goal production, he had a day to revel in a "vintage Alex" performance, and maybe ease the pressure he's placed on himself on top of the massive expectations from everyone else in the hockey world.
"No, I still think about it," Ovechkin said.
So, just as one productive game doesn't mean Ovechkin will now return to terrorizing opposing goaltenders on a nightly basis, maybe one such game also doesn't ease his burden.
For years, Ovechkin was the engine that ran one of the most-feared offensive machines in hockey. He racked up goals as the team piled up victories. The Capitals became the "it" team in the NHL -- one fans wanted to watch and maybe even pull for if their favorite club wasn't playing that night.
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 14
SOG: 75 | +/-: -6
Over the course of the past two seasons, something has changed. The Capitals have stepped away from the NHL's main stage, even though their run in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs -- one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals -- equaled the team's deepest penetration in the tournament of Ovechkin's career. What happens in Washington on a nightly basis doesn't send shockwaves through the rest of the League the way it once did.
Often the figurative finger of blame has been pointed squarely at Ovechkin. It comes with the territory -- the enormous contract, the swagger he's had since he was a rookie on a terrible team, the burden of expected greatness.
The start of this season was a disaster. Washington wobbled to a 2-8-1 record, and Ovechkin wasn't scoring nearly enough to appease anyone, from his harshest critics to his most devoted fans.
Ovechkin's new coach, Adam Oates, came to the job with a plan to help his captain find his mojo again. It involved a position switch, moving from his preferred place on the left wing to the other side of the ice.
The early results were predictably a work in progress. Oates allowed him to move back to the left side, but he played with grinders Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb. That didn't solve anything.
He went back to the right side, but not with his normal center, Nicklas Backstrom, from the past several seasons. Instead, it was new signing Mike Ribeiro, and the two of them have found harmony.
Not surprisingly, so have the Capitals.
"It is easier for me to find that stick as quick as possible," Ribeiro said. "Between the neutral zone when he is skating wide, I try to find him as often as I can during the game. He's a player who is better with the puck than without the puck, so if I can give him the puck, at least a few touches a game, I think he looks better as a player. That's my goal -- to give him the puck.
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"My goal here is make him score goals. I need to find him and find his stick. That's what I've been trying to do."
The numbers for Ovechkin in the past 10 games look a lot more like they belong to a two-time MVP. He has six goals and six assists, but more importantly Ovechkin is impacting games the way people expect of him.
He has 46 shots on net in those 10 games, is hitting foes more and is skating around or through defensemen with much greater frequency.
"Yeah, he's been playing really well lately," general manager George McPhee said. "I thought Thursday was his best game of the year, even though there was no production. He was a handful out there. He had two or three breakaways and was creating scoring chances and was playing hard. Obviously we want him playing like that every night, and we're getting closer to that. It's been a good change, we think, in a lot of ways."
Oates has helped oversee similar conversions as an assistant coach in New Jersey with Ilya Kovalchuk and Tampa Bay with Martin St. Louis. He wants Ovechkin to find new ways to beat opposing defenses designed specifically for his assortment of tricks.
The Saturday matinee hat trick against the New Jersey Devils was a perfect display of the ways Ovechkin can flourish in his new digs.
Normally a guy who likes to lug the puck, Ovechkin gave it up at the start of a rush on his first goal, instead opting to let linemates Ribeiro and Jason Chimera do the work of advancing it into the offensive zone. He went and found a soft spot in the coverage, and Ribeiro found him with a perfect pass for an easy one-timer.
The second goal looked like a photo negative of one of his traditional go-to moves. Ovechkin raced out in front of the puck, received the outlet pass, charged at the defenseman and used him a screen to beat goaltender Johan Hedberg. The only difference? It came on the right side of the ice instead of the left -- the first time he's been able to pull off that move for a goal since switching sides.
A third goal came on the power play, and that is the area where he's been most dangerous even when the shots weren't going in earlier in the season.
"I thought about it a few days before that. His last 10 games have been solid for us," Ribeiro said. "He's been having a lot of shots on net, a lot of scoring chances. Just in the game before against the Devils, he had two breakaways and a few scoring chances. It was just a matter of time for it to starting going in. I think effort -- I think that is one of the reasons. He's been working hard, even when he isn't scoring like the years before."
Sure, the hat trick was only one game, but Ovechkin's resume of strong work on the right side was building before the breakout against the Devils. Eventually, Kovalchuk and St. Louis settled in and continued to flourish -- just as Oates and the Capitals expect to happen with Ovechkin.
"I thought Thursday was his best game of the year, even though there was no production. He was a handful out there. He had two or three breakaways and was creating scoring chances and was playing hard. Obviously we want him playing like that every night, and we're getting closer to that. It's been a good change, we think, in a lot of ways."
-- Capitals general manager George McPhee on Alex Ovechkin
If it continues to work, maybe Ovechkin can help pull the Capitals back into the NHL spotlight. Washington is in last place in the Southeast Division, but four points from the lead afer a 3-0 win Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes.
For the Capitals to return to the playoffs for a sixth straight season, they are going to need a sustained surge -- not unlike the course they completed in 2007-08 to rise from the bottom of the NHL standings to a division title.
There is less time on the clock for the Capitals to complete such a turnaround this season, but if it is going to happen, the new guy on the right side of the ice is going to have to play a big part.
"He is a very important part of this team. We need him to score to win hockey games," forward Troy Brouwer said. "When he's going we're a lot better team, and we need him to have more games like the last two that he's played. Just because he had a hat trick doesn't mean that he had an amazing game. He did. But he also had a really good game the night before and he didn't score any goals."
McPhee said, "I think Adam's been outstanding in the way that they've communicated and in the way that they are getting along. It looks like a great relationship, and in any successful organization your top players have to be on board. And … it was something that Adam's been through before with other players -- whether it's St. Louis or Kovalchuk -- and he could actually demonstrate on videotape with Alex what he's done with these other players, showing them the before and after."