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Capitals' Ovechkin focused solely on team success

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

Alex Ovechkin's level of introspection grew with each answer he gave during a nine-minute impromptu press conference in the Washington Capitals dressing room at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday.

The questions started out broad, almost as a way to gauge Ovechkin's interest in discussing his role in the growth of the Capitals over the past decade and how they've come so far, yet still have so far to go:

Is hosting the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Thursday a signature moment for you as the face of the Washington Capitals?

"It's not about one person who makes it," Ovechkin said. "Every guy who has been here does a certain job and I'm one of them. When you look back where we started and where we are now, it's a great feeling and a great time."

When you think about where this organization was when you got here to where it is now, what comes to your mind?

"Every game is sold out, but our first year you could get any ticket and how many tickets you want," Ovechkin said. "Everything is red. The fans are unbelievable. The different thing is our group of guys here now are more mature and we're ready to take a big step."

Are you a different, more mature player?

"I got older," he said. "I look at the game in a different way right now."

How so?

"When you're on the ice you just want to do something different than I did my first couple of years," he said.

Does that mean you feel a sense of urgency to do something special, to win the Stanley Cup?

"We understand as a group that it's time to move forward and we have to take this time, and it has to be our time," he said. "That's why you don't think about the personal stats."

Did not making the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season crystalize that for you?

"That was the moment when you kind of realize why you play in the NHL," Ovechkin said. "It's not about 82 games, it's not about scoring titles, MVPs and that stuff. You can see it in Chicago; [Jonathan] Toews and [Patrick] Kane never won MVPs or scoring titles, but they have won the Cup.

"That's why I'm here. One day you're going to be like, 'I'm tired, I don't have interest in all that still,' but right now I have interest in it, I want it. I want it."

And with that realization, born through one of the most disappointing seasons he has had on a team level, Ovechkin has become a different player on the ice and a different leader off the ice, according to his teammates.

He is the face of this franchise, the biggest reason why the NHL Winter Classic will be played at Nationals Park in Washington D.C. on Thursday, but he's also been the face of the Capitals disappointment in recent seasons, one of the reasons why coaches have come and gone with nothing to show but a couple of banners hanging from Verizon Center's rafters that represent regular-season success.

"Alex has won everything there is to win as an individual, as an individual," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. "Your trophy case is full as an individual, but ultimately players are always judged by championship. Go across any sport; players are judged by championships and that's the one thing that's missing. So for him the realization of that is coming to the forefront.

"He's a tremendous talent. We still want him to win his individual awards but ultimately to be remembered as one of the best players of all time you have to have won one or more championships, and we're still looking for that first. I think that's very much on the front of his mind."

Capitals defenseman Mike Green said he thinks Ovechkin has a straight-line focus this season because that's what coach Barry Trotz has asked of him.

"He's learning the system and playing within it, being creative and still doing what he can do but maybe taking a step back. Like when there are times to break through the neutral zone, if there is a turnover, he stops," Green said. "It's little things like that that are the difference in a hockey game, whether we win or not, because it reflects the whole team. Off-ice he's very engaging with other players and that's something we need as a team.

"Yeah, he's definitely grasped it."

Ovechkin grasped it before Trotz was hired as Adam Oates' replacement in late May. He went into last offseason, the longest he's had as an NHL player since 2008, uncertain about what lies ahead and worried about what could happen, if he's missed his shot at the title.

"It was not like holy [expletive], but it was thinking about what is going to happen with the team," Ovechkin said. "Were you going to stay? Were they going to rebuild again? Would it be a situation where you would be one of the experienced guys who would stay but they would trade all the other guys?"

Ovechkin also wasn't immune to the attacks coming from the media either, the most popular being that an elite scorer can't be called an elite player if he has a minus-35 rating and 27 even-strength goals, if he is a one-trick pony on the power play and has disregard for defensive-zone play.

Ovechkin was criticized for not coming back hard enough into the defensive zone, rarely playing below the faceoff dots, for cherry-picking between the blue line and center ice.

He led the NHL with 51 goals last season, but 24 came on the power play; he scored two even-strength goals in the final 29 games. It might sound ridiculous to criticize a player who scored 51 goals, but Ovechkin was fair game because the Capitals were outscored when he was on the ice and they didn't make the playoffs.

"Sometimes you put pressure on yourself and sometimes you read the newspaper and they ask, 'What Ovechkin can do for the team?'" Ovechkin said. "They say, 'They're never going to win,' all that kind of stuff. When you start realizing what you have to do it's a totally different thing [from what you are doing]."

So Ovechkin met with Trotz in Las Vegas in June to talk to him about what to expect, what he should be doing. He came away curious, but when he was asked in September during the NHL's annual Player Media Tour in New York, how and why he thinks this relationship can work, he was somewhat skeptical.

"We want to win and we want to try to find the right way," Ovechkin said in September. "We'll see how it goes this way."

Alex Ovechkin
Right Wing - WSH
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 13 | PTS: 30
SOG: 179 | +/-: 7
It wasn't going to go anywhere unless Ovechkin bought what Trotz was selling. He has.

"We know if we're going to play our game, play how we want to play, probably nobody can stop us," Ovechkin said. "When you put the personal stuff in the back you can see how it can work.

"You see the difference … understand, yes, this is exactly what we need, exactly what this group of guys has been missing the last couple of years."

So that's why you're seeing Ovechkin coming back harder into the defensive zone, playing physical away from the puck, retreating below the faceoff dots, stopping in the neutral zone when there is a turnover and breaking out with the rest of his team in unison.

Trotz was quick to note that Ovechkin is not perfect; that there are details of his game that still need to be ironed out, but the evidence of how Ovechkin has changed is obvious if you have watched the Capitals play in the past month.

Washington enters the NHL Winter Classic having gone 8-1-3 in its past 12 games. Ovechkin has scored five goals in that stretch, but one on the power play. He is a plus-8.

He has turned his minus-35 from last season into a plus-7 through 36 games this season. He has a Corsi-for percentage of 53.7, according to War-on-ice.com after finishing at 49.3 percent last season. He has 17 goals, tied for sixth in the League entering play Wednesday, and he's on pace for close to 40. He still leads the NHL in shots with 179.

"Obviously Alex, his biggest thing is he's got the shot but he's competing," Trotz said. "He's buying in. He wants to be a better player. He wants the Washington Capitals to win. The bottom line for him is winning."

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