PITTSBURGH — The first meeting was on June 22, 2014, a dinner date that helped coach and player forge an understanding. Barry Trotz had just been hired as the Capitals’ coach, so he flew to Las Vegas for a face-to-face with captain Alex Ovechkin at the NHL Awards. Trotz was familiar with the external perception that Ovechkin was a selfish superstar, but that wasn’t the player he encountered in that introduction.
In meetings over the next three seasons, Trotz instead found Ovechkin open to his coaching and consistently willing to do what Trotz asked of him as long as a clear explanation was provided. So, their meeting on May 5, 2017, didn’t feel momentous to Trotz. He just asked one of the greatest goal-scorers in NHL history to play on a third line with Washington’s season on the verge of being extinguished because it could balance out the Capitals’ scoring attack.
In what is now a telling picture of Washington’s evolution as a team and Ovechkin’s as a captain, the Capitals enter their most important game of the past two decades with the franchise’s foundational player in reduced role. After 12 seasons of being a top-line winger, Ovechkin will again be on a third line when Washington hosts the Pittsburgh Penguins in an Eastern Conference semifinal Game 7 on Wednesday night.
Trotz shifted Ovechkin to the bottom-six forward corps when the Capitals were in a three-games-to-one hole entering Game 5, and it sparked a turnaround in the series. Washington responded with its two best performances to tie the matchup at three games apiece, and the team’s rejiggered top line with Andre Burakovsky replacing Ovechkin at left wing has scored five five-on-five goals in the past two games.
Trotz said the move was a bigger deal to the media than it was to the player and coach. But the decision resonated within the Washington locker room.
“I absolutely loved it,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said on Monday night. “I loved that [Ovechkin] didn’t take it personal. This time of year, sometimes you have to just check your ego and work harder. In Game 5, he skated his butt off, ran into people, he was a bull in a china shop again and got rewarded with a goal. His attitude hasn’t changed. He wants to win and wants to come here and make a difference. That’s not easy to do for a proud player that’s been a top, top player in this league for a long time. He checked his ego and that was that.”
One item on Trotz’s to-do list when he joined the Capitals was to make the team steadily less reliant on Ovechkin. General Manager Brian MacLellan tried to surround the 31-year-old with talent by acquiring forwards T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Lars Eller, and the development of young players Evgeny Kuznetsov and Burakovsky also alleviated the pressure on Ovechkin to carry the team on a nightly basis.
Trotz went a step further this season when he decreased Ovechkin’s time on ice by roughly two minutes per game. The purpose was to foster a four-line approach with more even playing time across the team’s 12 forwards. Trotz said that required an “ongoing dialogue” and a few meetings between the two, especially when Ovechkin’s time on ice in some games neared his career-low. The captain wondered if he’d done something wrong. Trotz assured him it was just a matter of the team as a whole doing something right.
Ovechkin accepted that, even as his personal production took a hit. He went from scoring 50 goals during the 2015-16 season to 33 this year.
“I don’t think anything personally for him really matters, which is a great sign really,” Trotz said before the playoffs. “I think early in his career, he was chasing records. … He’s realizing the importance of his teammates. He’s realizing the importance of doing something together with the group rather than individual stuff.”
When Trotz explained to Ovechkin that he’d be playing him alongside Eller and Tom Wilson for Game 5, the coach likened it to the approach the Penguins had last postseason, when sniping winger Phil Kessel had success on Pittsburgh’s third line. But the move came on the heels of Ovechkin criticizing himself for a poor performance against the Penguins in Game 4, and Trotz’s lineup change at least appeared to be a reaction to that.
“It’s a big demotion,” NBC’s Jeremy Roenick said before Game 5. “If I’m him … if I’m going down to the third line, I’m going to be out of my mind — irate and mad.”
If Ovechkin felt that way, he didn’t show it. “Right now, it’s not a good time to talk about, ‘Well, I’m gonna play less,’ or ‘I’m gonna play more,’ ” he said. “We’re here to get result and we’re here to get successful as a team, not individual. That’s a big part of our success.”
In Game 5, Ovechkin scored his fifth goal of these playoffs with an assist from Eller, and the Capitals seemed to find their footing against the Penguins for the first time in the series.
“It does send a big message to the group,” Trotz said. “One of the things about being a captain is that you have to worry about everybody else first, to be a good captain. And Alex is doing that. He’s worrying about everybody else first. … He just wants to win with that group, and he’ll do whatever is asked of him to win with that group. And that’s a strong message. That’s one of the strongest messages a captain can make to his teammates is that whatever is asked of him he’ll do for the betterment of the group or the betterment in this situation of a playoff round.”