Defensive Improvement Has Ovechkin on Point

Forward Alex Ovechkin is showing more of a commitment to defense so far this season -- without hurting his offensive production.
Forward Alex Ovechkin is showing more of a commitment to defense so far this season -- without hurting his offensive production. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 8, 2007

In his first two seasons, Alex Ovechkin had more ice time on average than any Washington Capitals forward. Yet there was always one situation in which he'd be glued to the bench: as his team protected a lead in the final seconds.

That, however, has started to change this season. With a renewed commitment to defense, Ovechkin has gained Coach Glen Hanlon's trust, and as a result, was on the ice in the last minute during each of the Capitals' first two games, both victories.

"Coach trust me more right now," Ovechkin said after yesterday's practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "The reason is because I play well in defensive zone, I try to play more smart and I go to spot where I have to stay. It's working."

At 2 p.m. today, Ovechkin and the Capitals will attempt to win their first three games for the first time in five years against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum.

Since Ovechkin entered the league in 2005, Hanlon and his staff have implored the 22-year-old Russian to be more responsible in the defensive zone, even though it contradicted what came naturally to him. That message, it seems, is finally getting through to the all-star left wing, who had a team-worst plus-minus rating of minus-19 last season.

In the final minutes of Friday's 3-1 victory in Atlanta, Ovechkin bolted back into Washington's zone, extended his stick and disrupted a Thrashers scoring chance, despite having lost a tooth moments earlier from a high stick. Then in Saturday's 2-0 shutout of Carolina, Ovechkin resisted a high-risk opportunity to score an empty-net goal and instead simply dumped the puck into the neutral zone. He also threw himself in front of a shot by Hurricanes center Eric Staal a few seconds later.

"He's been getting back, and he's been in perfect position," captain Chris Clark said of Ovechkin. "You look around the league, there's guys like [Atlanta's Marian] Hossa who are superstars and they're playing at the end of games. Alex wants to be on the ice as much as he can. But to do that, he's got to play great defense."

Ovechkin's improving defense, though, hasn't come at the expense of his offense. He has 99 career goals and 200 points after registering an assist against the Thrashers and a goal against the Hurricanes. He's also tied for the Capitals' lead this season in plus/minus with a rating of plus-2.

"You can't put people in a position to fail at the expense of the hockey team," Hanlon said of playing Ovechkin while holding on late in games. "If you are supposed to be in a certain place when you're protecting a lead, and it's five on six, you have to have confidence in the guys you have on the ice. When people do the things they are supposed to do, they play. It's really that simple."

Capitals Note: Winger Alexander Semin aggravated his sprained ankle late in Saturday's game and did not practice yesterday. He did not accompany the team to Long Island for today's game.

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