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Alex Ovechkin heating up for Capitals

Captain's 16th NHL hat trick good news for Washington, linemates

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- When Alex Ovechkin raced into the St. Louis Blues zone, the Washington Capitals captain had Andre Burakovsky on his right on a 2-on-1, but everyone in Verizon Center knew what was going to happen next.

With two goals already Wednesday, Ovechkin wasn't passing on this one. At the top of the left circle, he unleashed a wrist shot that went past goaltender Carter Hutton's glove into the top right corner of the net. That completed Ovechkin's 16th NHL hat trick and proved to be the winning goal in a 4-3 victory.

Ovechkin passed Jaromir Jagr for the most three-goal games among active players and moved within three of Peter Bondra for the most in Capitals history. Ovechkin's previous hat trick also was against the Blues, on April 9 of last season in St. Louis.

"Sometimes you just feel right away when you have an opportunity to shoot the puck and you feel the puck on your stick and you just go out there and just use the momentum and use your chances," Ovechkin said. "My linemates and my partners gave it to me. You can see all three were kind of good setups and I just had to hit the net."

Though the Capitals have struggled to find consistency at times over their first 19 games, they are 12-5-2 and Ovechkin hasn't been one of their problems. But it was a positive for him to have a breakout game.

Ovechkin has been heating up of late with five goals in the past four games, giving him 12 for the season. Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who has 14 goals, is the only player in the NHL with more.

"He played with an excitement again. That was good." Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "Sometimes we say he's not scoring enough and all that. He was good."

Video: STL@WSH: Ovi pots three in win against Blues

Trotz has been rationing Ovechkin's ice time this season, spreading out the minutes to try to create balance among his four lines and keep the 31-year-old fresher. Ovechkin played 15:29 against the Blues, the fourth time this season he didn't break 16 minutes.

He's averaging 18:18 per game, which is exactly two minutes less than he averaged last season when he scored 50 goals for the third consecutive season and seventh time in his NHL career.

"I think that will pay off in the long run," Trotz said. "We can play with a faster pace and if they can skate like that they're going to score a lot of goals that group."

The biggest difference for Ovechkin on Wednesday was his center Evgeny Kuznetsov. Although Kuznetsov led the Capitals last season with 77 points on 20 goals and 57 assists, his production dried up late in the season when he had no goals in his final 20 games and no goals and three assists over his final 12 games.

Kuznetsov's struggles carried over into this season and he entered the game Wednesday with two goals and five assists in 18 games. With Trotz separating Ovechkin from his usual center, Nicklas Backstrom, to try to spread out the scoring, Kuznetsov's poor play was preventing that plan from working.

Video: CBJ@WSH: Ovechkin labels top corner for PPG in 2nd

But against the Blues, the combination of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Burakovsky was the Capitals' best line and it was no coincidence that Kuznetsov had his best game of the season with one goal and one assist.

"Kuzy was flying today," Ovechkin said. "I hope he's back on his game. When he has confidence, he controls the puck on his stick and goes back and forth. It helps us as wingers when you see your centerman play well."

Kuznetsov skated well with and without the puck and was deliberate in going into the middle of the ice and making plays there. That's something Trotz and his assistants had been pushing him to do more after he spent too much of the first 18 games playing on the perimeter.

The result was Kuznetsov's second multipoint game of the season and his first since a 3-2 win at the Winnipeg Jets on Nov. 1. He set up Ovechkin's power-play goal from the left circle with 2:32 left the first period to open the scoring and then drove to the net to finish a feed from Dmitry Orlov on the rush to increase the lead to 3-1 at 6:31 of the third period.

Ovechkin completed his hat trick 22 seconds later.

"That was the Kuzy that we all see that he can be," Trotz said. "I thought Kuzy was really decisive in how he was going to play today. There was no clutter in his game. He just said, 'I'm going to play. I'm going to play in a straight line. Take pucks to the net.' I thought he got to the interior and because he forced himself in there, everything opened up."

Video: STL@WSH: Kuznetsov taps in Orlov's cross-ice feed

No one has to tell Kuznetsov that the Capitals need more games like this one from him.

"Just my legs [felt] a little bit better than [other] nights. That's the key," he said. "When the centerman plays well, he plays [on offense] and on [defense], everywhere. That's means a lot for the other four guys."

Trotz passed some of the credit for Kuznetsov's breakthrough to Cal Ripken Jr., the former Baltimore Orioles shortstop and Baseball Hall of Famer who addressed the Capitals after practice Tuesday.

"As coaches, players deal with so many things and I learned that [Tuesday], that when you get an opportunity and you figure it out, there's some good karma there," Trotz said.

Kuznetsov said his focus has been on helping the Capitals win more than his point production. His effort on Wednesday will help both, and his confidence.

"When things are not going well, guys get frustrated and all you have to do is go back and work and find your game and the team game," Kuznetsov said.

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