COLUMBUS -- The adversity they faced last season has given Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos a different perspective on what it means to be NHL All-Stars this season.
"It's tough to say I knew I would be sitting here at this time last year," Stamkos said Friday during NHL Media Day presented by DraftKings at Nationwide Arena.
At this time last season Stamkos, the captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning, was rehabbing his surgically repaired broken right leg and clinging to a faint hope of playing in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"It was circled on the calendar as soon as I was in the hospital bed before surgery, trying to play in the Olympics," Stamkos said.
He never got there. He never really overcame his leg injury last season even though he returned in March and played four games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, all losses to the Montreal Canadiens.
While Stamkos was recovering from his leg injury, Ovechkin was struggling to lift the Washington Capitals into Stanley Cup Playoff contention while preparing for the Olympics in his home country, a tournament he had waited his entire life to compete in.
It couldn't have gone worse for him from February through April.
Russia flamed out in Sochi, losing in the quarterfinals and disappointing an entire nation. Then the Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Despite leading the NHL with 51 goals, Ovechkin was criticized in the media for his minus-35 rating, third-worst in the League.
"It was hard," Ovechkin said. "All the attention, all the media, the fans, especially when we lose back home, it was kind of hard. You know the people, the fans back in Russia, they were very excited about it [the Olympics], and when you lose you don't make them happy and you take all the pressure on yourself."
Center - TBL
GOALS: 26 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 45
SOG: 158 | +/-: 1
Fast forward to now and everything is different for Stamkos and Ovechkin, arguably the two biggest superstars in Columbus for the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Sunday (5 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).
Stamkos, healthy now after missing 45 games with the leg injury last season, is fourth in the League with 26 goals and tied for 11th with 45 points; the Lightning lead the Eastern Conference with 64 points.
Ovechkin has scored five goals in his past three games and 11 in his past 11 games to climb into third place on the NHL scoring list with 27 goals; the Capitals are in playoff position with 57 points, fourth in the Metropolitan Division but six points shy of the first-place New York Islanders.
"It kind of gave me a new outlook not only on events like this, but just your career as a professional athlete," Stamkos said of his injury last season. "I had never missed a game going back to junior hockey … for an injury. I was healthy scratched my rookie year but never missed a game with an injury. I remember I had scored in six straight games, was feeling great, our team was in first. Coming into Boston, a tough rink to play in, you're so excited, and boom, broken leg, surgery the next morning. Your world gets flipped upside down. You have a new appreciation for life as a professional athlete. No matter how hard you work, how hard you train, how well you take care of your body, you can't control certain things. You never know how many chances you're going to get to come to events like this so you try to enjoy it while you can because you never really know what's going to happen next."
Ovechkin wasn't sure what would happen to the Capitals after last season, though he knew changes were coming. They were extensive.
George McPhee and Adam Oates, the former general manager and coach, were replaced by Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz. The former bolstered the Capitals lineup by signing defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik; the latter began the process of changing the culture on the team, making veteran leaders like Ovechkin more accountable.
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 27 | ASST: 16 | PTS: 43
SOG: 219 | +/-: 12
Ovechkin has responded with his leadership and his play. The Capitals players insist Ovechkin's focus on winning and doing things right for the team is stronger this season than ever before; his plus-12 rating through 46 games is a small indication of that.
"I'm plus, so it's good," Ovechkin said. "We're fighting for a playoff spot, so it's good. Everything right now is working well with the team and with me so I'm pretty confident in the team and how we play."
Does Ovechkin feel he has something to prove this season?
"I don't think I have to prove something," he said. "It's kind of a situation when you have to play well to get success; not individually but team success. If you're going to put everything on yourself you're not going to get success."
Despite his 26 goals and the Lightning's place atop the Eastern Conference standings, Stamkos said he has more to give, another level he can get to, the level he was at pre-injury. He knows he's answered a lot of questions already about recovering and becoming a star again, but it's not enough, he said.
"I think I still have a couple questions left for myself," Stamkos said. "It's been a great year for our team, a great year so far for me, and I think there is even more to offer, so that's the exciting thing."
What more does Stamkos think he can offer?
"I think it's just getting back to that difference-maker, dominant level," he said. "I know I've kind of shown it in spurts and felt it in spurts, but it's just that consistency. I know it's been a different year playing with a lot of different guys on line combinations, but I still feel like I can be that elite player counted on in all situations every night. Especially as a leader of that team you want to have those expectations."
He has them now; or better yet he has them again. Both Stamkos and Ovechkin do. They're here for the All-Star Game because they're elite players, but their appreciation level for being All-Stars is higher now than ever before because of what they went through last season.
"It was a very tough grind, but I knew if I put the time and effort in, along with all the people that helped me, that we could one day get back to being an NHL All-Star," Stamkos said. "I'm definitely excited. But like I said, I think I can be even better and feel even better, so that's exciting for me."