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Capitals' Ovechkin embraces big moments

by Ben Raby /

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Throughout the regular season, first-year Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz noticed a trend in Alex Ovechkin's game.

"The bigger the stage, the bigger he plays," Trotz said earlier this month. "On the big stage, he's not afraid."

From the the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park, to late-season trips to Madison Square Garden and Bell Centre, Trotz watched Ovechkin score key goals in big games.

Now as the curtain lifts on the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the League's biggest stage, Ovechkin is poised to take the leading role during what he hopes is a deep postseason run.

"Right now it's a totally different scenario," said Ovechkin, who returns to the postseason for the seventh time in eight years but has yet to advance beyond the second round. "We're more mature. We're mature enough to take a big step, we're all thinking about one thing and that's to have success in the playoffs."

The Capitals, who missed the playoffs last year, are ready to make amends for past failures. Despite a recent history of postseason shortcomings, including a 2-5 record in Game 7s since 2008, Ovechkin said this year can be different.

"Sometimes in the past we'd make the playoffs, but we didn't know what it would look like," he said. "Right now, it seems like we have the experience, we have older guys, we're big enough to be physical and we have lots of energy."

Ovechkin leads the charge. He is the League's leading goal-scorer, by a wide margin, and is the only player to reach 50 goals ark this season (53).

On the surface, this may seem like just another year for Ovechkin, who won his fifth Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy.

But those around the Capitals say that just as the team has taken on a different identity under Trotz, so has its leading scorer.

"I think his game is a lot more complete," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. "We're seeing a noticeable effort all over the ice. … He's moving his feet without the puck, especially through the neutral zone. You'll see him backcheck and pick up pucks in our slot and then feed our transition game. ... I think he's made a lot of changes in his game to really help us as a team. This is the best I've ever seen him play."

According to his coaches and teammates, Ovechkin has been more economical with his ice time, playing fewer minutes but doing more within each individual shift.

Among Trotz's first messages to Ovechkin was to skate more on each shift. The gliding that Ovechkin was guilty of earlier in his career would be replaced, Trotz said, by skating hard on the backcheck and even harder on the counterattack.

"The things that people criticized him for in the past," Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said, "he's really tried to work on this year in terms of the defensive side of the game and his work ethic and, obviously, it hasn't taken away from his offense."

Though it has become more difficult to score this season, Ovechkin is now one of six players in NHL history with six 50-goal seasons. Ovechkin joined an exclusive group that includes Hall of Fame members Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Guy LaFleur, Marcel Dionne and Mario Lemieux.

"For me it's all about my teammates giving me opportunities," Ovechkin said. "Of course, we play against the top defensive [pairings], the best goalies and every year it's harder because of the systems that teams play, so you have to adjust and think what you can do better."

Laich has played with Ovechkin for parts of 10 seasons and seen the adjustments up close.

"He went through a little phase three or four years ago," Laich said, "where he was a little bit predictable, but I think now that unpredictable factor is back in him. He doesn't just come down the wing and shoot anymore. He'll take it to the net, he's scoring deflection goals, rebound goals, wraparound goals."

There is also Ovechkin's patented one-timer from the left faceoff circle on the power play, an option defenseman John Carlson calls "the best weapon in the game."

Alex Ovechkin
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 53 | ASST: 28 | PTS: 81
SOG: 395 | +/-: 10
Ovechkin matched a career-high and led the NHL with 24 power-play goals this season, and the Capitals finished with the No. 1 ranked power play.

"I don't think there's anything better than that," Carlson said of watching Ovechkin wind up for the one-timer with the man-advantage.

"Teams spend so much time and energy preparing for that and following him on the ice and he still finds a way to score."

Ovechkin said that's because he shoots the puck with tremendous frequency. The 29-year-old led the NHL in shots on goal this season, the ninth time in 10 years he's led the League.

"There's always lots of volume with [Ovechkin] but to me the thing with him is how it explodes on top of the goalie so quickly," Trotz said. "His shot and his release are probably as good as you'll see in the game."

Ovechkin and the Capitals are confident that will remain the case on the big stage of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"We're ready," Ovechkin said. "Individual [numbers], it's not important right now. We want, the whole organization, wants to win [the Stanley Cup]."

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