VOORHEES, N.J. -- Growing up in Yaroslavl, Russia, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov was a big fan of Washington Capitals forward and fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin.
"He scored a lot of goals," Provorov, 20, said after practice Friday. "He's a great player, fun to watch. Growing up, yes, I watched a lot of his games, a lot of highlights."
Provorov will see Ovechkin up close when the Flyers play the Capitals at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSP, NBCSWA, NHL.TV).
Provorov, in his second NHL season, has become the Flyers' No. 1 defenseman. He has two points (one goal, one assist) and leads them in average ice time (23:41) in four games. He's also plus-1 despite the Flyers having an even goal differential (13-13) and starting 35.29 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, fewest among their defensemen.
And those shifts have seen him play head-to-head against the opposition's best offensive players, a trend that likely will continue against Ovechkin, who leads the League with nine goals in five games.
Provorov has seen the highlights of Ovechkin's opening-night hat trick against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 5 and the four-goal game he had against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, but hasn't spent any extra time studying him.
Video: WSH@OTT: Ovechkin records hat trick in season opener
"There's a lot of great players in this league overall," Provorov said. "Washington is a very skilled team with lots of good players. The main focus is try to limit their opportunities, play hard, and don't give him time and space."
Ovechkin has 31 goals in 45 games against the Flyers, but had none in four games last season, in part because of Provorov.
In those four games, Provorov had more shots on goal (nine) than Ovechkin (five), and the Flyers carried the play when Provorov was on the ice against him. According to Natural Stat Trick, in 26:13 of 5-on-5 head-to-head ice time, the Flyers had more shot attempts (32-27) and more scoring chances (15-11). Each team scored one goal.
The Flyers went 1-2-1 against the Capitals last season and were outscored 13-4, but Provorov was plus-1, the only Philadelphia player with a positive rating.
Provorov said he was able to keep the awe factor of playing against Ovechkin at bay.
"I don't really focus on these kind of things during the game," he said. "After, when you get home from the game, you think, Yeah, I just played against Ovechkin or [Evgeni] Malkin,' or whoever, people you grew up watching. … After the game you can chat for a little bit. Last year after one of the games, I asked him to sign a stick for my brother, stuff like that. During the game you don't focus on that."
Provorov (6-foot-1, 201 pounds) is even better prepared now than last season, when he was second among NHL rookie defensemen with 30 points (six goals, 24 assists) in 82 games and led the Flyers with an average ice time of 21:58.
"I'm definitely a better player than I was last year," he said. "Just stronger, bigger, faster overall. The experience from last year definitely helped me coming into training camp this year. … I picked up a lot of things, small details, what I should do on this play and that play. No major changes [from last season]. I think I'm a pretty well-rounded player. I just try to keep getting better in all aspects of my game."
Video: PHI@ANA: Provorov hammers home Patrick's dish
Flyers coach Dave Hakstol has noticed the changes, which is why it's been easy for him to increase Provorov's workload.
"He's a little stronger," Hakstol said. "He's probably, in terms of the maturity of his body, in a little bit better condition. And because of that I think he's handling a couple of extra minutes per game seamlessly from where he was at the end of last year."
The maturity and on-ice skill are what allow Hakstol to give Provorov the toughest matchups on a game-to-game basis.
"I think any time you go out against other teams' top players you get a little bit more pumped, a little more into it," said Andrew MacDonald, Provorov's defense partner for most of the past two seasons. "He approaches the game the same way every game. He's well-prepared, mentally into it all the time. … I think you realize when you're out there against top guys, you have to be on your A-game all the time, otherwise they're going to get their opportunities and create chances. It's important to be on all the time.
"His awareness and reads on the ice are so good. It's translated right from last year to this year. You can tell he's more comfortable. … It's been great to see the growth."