-- There's a reason Alex Ovechkin
says he feels fresher and lighter heading into the stretch run of this season compared to last season. It might be due to a conscious decision he made in the fall.
Ovechkin wouldn't come out and say it directly, but he hinted after Monday's practice that he made sure to keep some energy in his tank for the post All-Star break drive to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That's not to say he wasn't playing hard and trying to be his best in the first 50 games of the season, but Ovechkin is consciously aware of what's important for him and the Capitals now that he's deep into his sixth NHL season.
It's no longer about personal statistics and individual awards.
"Of course I want to be on top, and of course I want to do my best, but the most important thing is to be in the playoffs and do what Chicago did when they won the Stanley Cup," Ovechkin told NHL.com.
Ovechkin said his weight hasn't changed, but he feels lighter and thinks it's translating into better shifts and more scoring chances. He doesn't believe it has anything to do with the new trainer he used this past summer.
"My conditioning is good getting closer to the playoffs and that's the most important thing," Ovechkin said. "That's where I want to be right now, in this kind of situation, what I'm feeling right now, how I feel right now."
Ovechkin has 5 goals and 5 assists in his last eight games. He went pointless in four of those games, but he still found some prime scoring chances.
"He's looking way more alive now," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau
"Yeah, I agree with that," linemate Nicklas Backstrom
told NHL.com. "Hey, if he feels fresher, that's good because we need it, especially now going into the last run of the regular season. That's a good thing for our team."
Boudreau said part of the reason for Ovechkin's drive is he's keeping his shifts shorter, so he's fresher throughout the whole game and not giving the puck away as he was prone to do earlier in the season when he was on the ice for over a minute at a time. He's averaged less than a minute per shift in the three games since the All-Star break.
Not having the Olympics to worry about could also be playing into Ovechkin's energy. Boudreau believes the mental grind leading up to the Olympics this time last year was far too taxing on Russia's biggest star.
"It's the pressure on Alex before going to the Olympics from all sorts of people in Russia and everything," Boudreau said. "I think that at this time last year he was a little tired and he's better off for it now. The last few games he's definitely shown signs. He looks quicker, he's handling the puck better, looks sharper. It's all of those things, which is good for the Caps."
It also could be speculated that the cortisone injection he received about a month ago into an undisclosed area of his upper body (the team never has confirmed the location) has given Ovechkin more power and confidence in his shot.
But perhaps we're looking too deep for reasons as to why Ovechkin says he feels so fresh and healthy. Could it simply be that he held some back earlier this season so he could have the energy he has right now?
Ovechkin never would directly admit to that, and it's not an excuse for his un-Ovechkin-like stats of 20 goals and 55 points through 54 games. However, after what he accomplished in his first five seasons and what he and the Capitals went through in the playoffs last spring, you have to wonder how motivated he was in the first few months of the season.
"I think the most important thing is not the regular season," Ovechkin said. "We can be the best team in the regular season every time, but the most important thing is who is going to raise the Cup."
Ovechkin desperately wants that to be him standing with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at the end of the Stanley Cup Final this June. The odds of that happening only improve if he's feeling fresh, healthy and energetic when it matters most.
"This is my sixth year in the League and sometimes at the end of the year you just have bruises, some injuries, and when you need more power you feel cheated, like you can't find your energy anymore," Ovechkin said. "I've played every time my best, try to do my best, but everybody is concentrating on being in good shape in the future."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl