“I said, ‘Listen, I don’t know. Puck just don’t wanna, don’t go through.’ ” Ovechkin recalled. Coach Adam Oates replied the way he has numerous times this season, reassuring his captain that eventually those efforts would be rewarded.
Saturday afternoon, Ovechkin proved Oates right with a four-point performance in a 5-1 win over the Devils that included his first hat trick in more than two years. After the breakout game, Ovechkin said Oates’s confidence and continued faith help bolster the former two-time Hart Trophy winner’s resolve when things aren’t going his way.
“He’s that kind of person who give me belief all the time,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes I have a bad game, I talk to him and he said ‘It’s okay. Chance is there. It’s going to come.’ For a player, if you feel that kind of trust from a coach, coaching staff, it’s very important. Teammates see it. I think right now everybody enjoy how we play.”
Ovechkin’s switch to right wing this season has been well-documented. He didn’t like the unfamiliar angles and approaches at first and asked to be moved back to the left side. But he’s now played 10 consecutive games at right wing, averaging 5.3 shots per game in that span. Each game it seems as though he’s making better use of the open ice available to him, varying his approaches and consistently involving his linemates.
Those subtle improvements in his game elicited regular praise from Oates over the past several weeks. The first-year head coach carefully monitors how many “touches” Ovechkin gets with the puck, how many rushes and scoring chances he’s involved in, and everything was trending upward.
It was just a matter of knowing that it would eventually result in gleaming red lights and blaring sirens.
“I feel that way about every guy. You’re doing the right things. It’ll turn your way at some point. You have to believe in that,” said Oates, who emphasizes that Ovechkin is still in the early stages of this transformation. “I think he looks more comfortable. I think it’s still a process — it’s only been a short time.”
Oates based much of his strategy for the Capitals and Ovechkin from New Jersey, where he was an assistant coach under Peter DeBoer. Last season, Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk made the same transition to the right side. It took time for Kovalchuk to find his footing, but in December and January of last season he averaged a point per game. Once everything became second nature, Kovalchuk recorded 42 points in the final 33 games of the regular season. The Devils went on to reach the Stanley Cup finals.
Ovechkin is under different pressure to make strides quickly because of the shortened season, but even before the offensive outburst on Saturday, Kovalchuk could see that his friend and countryman was close to putting things together.
“He really want to do it. I can see in his eyes, he was trying his best,” Kovalchuk said Friday. “He’s one of those guys, he’s never going to give up. He’s just going to go and try even harder, practice harder and work on his, like what he can do best. He will be even better. I don’t think in my mind that he’s not going to turn it around.”
Devils alternate captain Patrik Elias believes the change will benefit Ovechkin in the long run.
“What good is it if you have a success as an individual and you don’t accomplish anything as a team? That’s what it’s all about,” said Elias, who has won two Stanley Cups with the Devils during his 16-year career. “That style of hockey that we play doesn’t take away your stats. It makes it a lot harder for the other teams to play against. You don’t waste energy. You use energy for the right place, right things. And he’ll be fine. I think it’s a learning process.”
If Oates has his way, the hat trick and four points Saturday are just the beginning of what Ovechkin is capable of accomplishing.
He doesn’t deny that the Capitals need Ovechkin to produce offensively in order to succeed, but Oates believes that consistent goals and points follow as a natural result of improved play. Thus, the better the details, the more Ovechkin should be able to produce.
“You’ve got to be a complete player and you’ve got to grow as a player and you’ve got to get better and he’s no different than everybody,” Oates said. “The good thing is that he wants to.”