WASHINGTON -- Alex Ovechkin entered a victorious Washington Capitals dressing room Saturday night, a winner in his own right.
Ovechkin did not score in the Capitals' regular-season finale, a 3-2 overtime win against the Boston Bruins, but his 32 goals for the year were already tops in the NHL and enough to earn the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy for the third time in his career.
"I just moved into a new house so there's lots of room," Ovechkin said jokingly of adding another trophy to his personal collection.
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 32 | ASST: 24 | PTS: 56
SOG: 220 | +/-: 2
"It feels great. I didn't win personal awards for a couple years in a row, so it's nice to come back. Big thanks for the coaching staff and all my team. They give me this kind of opportunity."
For Ovechkin, it's an opportunity some in the hockey world suggested would never come again.
When the two-time League MVP saw his numbers drop just as he entered his mid-20s, the critics naturally were quick to point out Ovechkin's age and declining production. Questions came from both his biggest detractors and his strongest supporters, all of whom wondered what changed in the 2008 and 2009 Hart Trophy winner.
Among those longtime supporters left wondering was Capitals general manager George McPhee.
"It had gotten stale," McPhee conceded during the season's final weekend, referencing Ovechkin's game in recent years. "It had gotten a little too predictable."
Ovechkin had four 50-goal campaigns in his first five NHL seasons, but was held to a career-low 32 goals in 79 games in 2010-11, and finished 37th in League scoring with a career-low 65 points in 78 games in 2011-12.
"He came into this League and was just a handful for any team or player to play against," McPhee said, "And teams started making adjustments to play him over the years and the game changed over the years with the clogging up [of] the neutral zone again and so he had to adjust."
Enter Adam Oates -- the former Capitals captain who interviewed for Washington's vacant coaching position last spring.
Oates had no prior head coaching experience but did have a vision thanks to his work as an assistant with the Tampa Bay Lightning and New Jersey Devils.
"He was convinced that he could make [Ovechkin] a better player," McPhee said. "And that was a big part of choosing Adam. Everybody's going to say, 'Oh I can get this guy going,' but Adam had the video and the data to back it up; he could show you, look at what we did with this player, look at what we did with this player, and it worked. And he could show that to Alex as well."
Oates shared his plan with Capitals management to move Ovechkin from left wing -- a position he had played since his early teens -- to the right side. The idea was for Ovechkin to break out of his own zone more easily, present opponents with different looks and create more offensive changes.
He emphasized the need to have Ovechkin generate more touches -- a per-game statistic the coaching staff would monitor throughout the season -- with the hope that if Ovechkin touched the puck more often -- and in different areas on the ice -- he would be in better position to score different types of goals.
"Sometimes you need some luck to put it in," Ovechkin said. "Of course, you have to find a way to find this luck. It can't be luck all the time. Sometimes you have to score maybe not a typical goal but maybe you have to go to the middle of the ice and in front of the net and find the rebound and maybe tip the puck. Those kinds of goals I have this year too."
Oates said, "There have been a lot of naysayers recently. So, in that sense, I think everybody's very happy for him. He's been very professional about it, personally. I think what he's done this year has been fantastic for this organization and hasn't probably got enough credit for that, for actually being unselfish and willing to make a change."
The decision to switch Ovechkin's position, which wasn't without a few initial hiccups, may go down among the most impactful coaching moves of the 2012-13 season. Not bad considering it almost backfired.
"The first couple of games," Ovechkin explained, "I [told] him, 'OK, Oatesey let's put me back on the left side.' And he put me back [for four games] and after that we watched the video and he tells me and he shows me the video and I started to believe in it and so I said, 'OK, just put me on the right side and let's don't talk about it anymore.' So we didn't talk about it anymore since and we just look at the video and look at my highlights and talk about my game."
After scoring twice in the first 10 games of the season and nine times in the first 25, Ovechkin took off with 23 goals in his final 23 games. It should come as no surprise that the Capitals improved as a team during that stretch, going 17-4-2 to erase a 10-point Southeast Division deficit.
"I'm happy for him," said Oates, brushing aside any praise directed his way for Ovechkin's turnaround.
"One of the reasons I think he should win the Hart is because of his unselfishness to change positions for the club. That he was willing to listen to a coaching staff and switch ... I'm glad for him, he's had success and he's helped our team grow."
McPhee said, "It says a lot about Alex. You've got a two-time MVP and everything else, but if your top guys aren't coachable, you'd have no chance of having any kind of success. He bought in."