Matt Hendricks stood in front of his stall at Verizon Center on Saturday night answering questions about the facing the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs when suddenly the proceedings were interrupted.
“Atta boy! Atta boy!” Alex Ovechkin hooted as he entered the dressing room. “Atta atta boooooy!”
“I can’t hear you,” Hendricks said with a wide smile, pausing a reporter mid-question. “Our big Russian’s being noisy over here.”
There was plenty of reason for Ovechkin to be boisterous following Washington’s 3-2 overtime win over the Boston Bruins. While he didn’t score in the regular season finale, Ovechkin finished as the NHL’s leading goal scorer with 32 to earn his third career Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy.
“It feels good. I didn’t win personal awards a couple years in a row so it’s nice to come back,” Ovechkin said. “Big thanks for the coaching staff and all my team. They give me this kind of opportunity.”
Ovechkin, 27, finished this shortened 48-game season with 32 goals and 24 assists. Of that offensive production, 23 goals and 13 assists came in the final 23 games of the regular season, illustrating Ovechkin’s growing comfort at right wing.
As early as his interview for the Capitals’ head coaching position, Adam Oates knew he wanted Ovechkin to move to right wing. He believed it would allow Ovechkin to be more involved in the play, creating more touches and thus more scoring opportunities.
General Manager George McPhee supported the move because Ovechkin’s game had become “stale” and “a little too predictable” on the left side. The Capitals had used him at right wing on rare occasion, showing the possibilities but the challenge was making it stick.
“If we could ever convince him to stay over there, it’d be better for him. It says a lot about Alex,” McPhee said Saturday. “If your top guys aren’t coachable, you’d have no chance of having any kind of success. And he bought in.”
There’s little doubt now that the switch to the right side reinvigorated Ovechkin’s game, but Oates rejects the notion that he is responsible for the winger’s success. To Oates, Ovechkin’s willingness to switch to a different position after years of prosperity on the left side is where all the credit should lie.
“None. I’m happy for him,” Oates said. “One of the reasons I think he should win the Hart is because 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.”