“To play with him in Russia, it’s different,” said Nicklas Backstrom, who joined Dynamo Moscow during the lockout at Ovechkin’s urging. “He’s a bigger character over there. Everybody knows who he is, wants to see him, watch him play.”
On Dec 31, as he and Kirilenko celebrated the new year with their families, Ovechkin proposed. She had picked out a ring and already accepted, but Kirilenko wanted to surprise their parents with the news when they were all together for the holiday.
“It moved fast and it was unbelievable. It still is unbelievable,” Ovechkin said. “I feel comfortable with her. Talking to her every day, she helps me. Sometimes I go home and if I was in a bad mood, when I see her I just forget about what happens here and move on.”
A fresh approach
Ovechkin ranked fifth in the NHL in goals last season with 38, but for the second straight year, he finished with career lows in points (65) and assists (27). After Bruce Boudreau was fired as coach in November 2011, Dale Hunter instituted an ultra-conservative game plan, cutting Ovechkin’s minutes and clipping his offensive wings.
It was a humbling experience for the two-time Hart Trophy winner to sit on the bench, especially during the playoffs.
“It was very hard for me personally,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes you have to keep it in your inside, if you’re not happy, to be good teammate.”
Ovechkin doesn’t hide his enthusiasm for playing an aggressive style under Oates, calling the first-year coach’s strategy “perfect for us.” During training camp, the two have been regularly seen discussing plays on the ice.
Oates wants to simultaneously loosen the reins on Ovechkin offensively while entrusting him with more defensive responsibility. He encouraged a shift to right wing, which could diversify Ovechkin’s game, and the coach also might use him on the penalty kill.
Oates wants to make a strong connection with the face of the franchise to help him improve as a player.
“I love his enthusiasm, and obviously he’s a very dynamic player. I’m going to talk to him a lot,” Oates said. “The first goal for me is to get him to trust me. I want him to know that I’ve got his back and I do. I believe I’m that type of guy and I’m going to do everything I can to make him be successful.”
Regardless of the year, supporting cast or coach, the Capitals’ fortunes have been tied directly to Ovechkin’s ability to make a difference. With a new outlook and style off the ice, Ovechkin seems ready for the challenge of leading another attempt at a prolonged Stanley Cup playoff run.
“I feel like he’s happy,” Backstrom said. “He feels good about himself and everybody knows what he’s capable of doing when he feels good about himself. I think he will be as good as he wants to be.”