Here are some reasons provided for Alex Ovechkin’s back-to-back hat tricks to open the season. For one, a lucky sister-in-law: “Every time she in town, I score hat trick,” Ovechkin said. Or it could be a change in equipment brand: “He’s got CCM back and seems to be scoring those goals again,” Montreal defenseman Karl Alzner mused.
But as center Evgeny Kuznetsov considered the past five months and how Ovechkin’s summer training and weight were scrutinized, he offered another explanation for Ovechkin’s blistering start to the season of seven goals in two games: “You can see maybe he’s more hungry. I can see this in his eyes,” Kuznetsov said.
Perhaps Ovechkin turned an offseason of disappointment and doubt into motivation. After his goal-scoring production suffered last season, Ovechkin became an afterthought in conversations about the NHL’s top players. Some questioned whether Ovechkin’s 33-goal campaign last season — a career year for most players, but a down one for him — signaled time is catching up with him. Even the Capitals asked Ovechkin to make some changes this summer so he could keep up in the NHL’s younger, faster landscape.
Consider the message received. And in the past two games, Ovechkin has sent one of his own.
“I think, organizationally, Alex took it to heart that he’s got to keep evolving,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “I mean, it’s tougher when you get older. You’ve got to work out harder, you’ve got to do all that stuff. When you’re younger, you could probably cut a couple corners, because the body responds. As you get older, that body has to be the driving force. I think he put a little more work into that area.”
That was part of a conversation Trotz and Ovechkin had when the coach met with the captain for 90 minutes in Moscow this summer. Trotz has likened his team’s disappointing end to the season — another second-round playoff loss against the Pittsburgh Penguins — to how the death of a close friend feels. But as the Capitals navigated their way through the ashes of last season, reconciling the league’s best regular season team with the one that once again fell short of expectations in the playoffs, the organization also tried to assess Ovechkin and his state entering his 13th NHL season.
“Sometimes you need some time to heal,” Trotz said. “And then sometimes you need time to reevaluate where you are as you get older in life and things aren’t coming as easy.”
Ovechkin’s 33 goals last season — a career-low 16 were at even strength — marked the first time since 2012 that he hadn’t scored at least 50 in an 82-game season. But Washington’s lineup was so deep and balanced, he didn’t need to score every game for the Capitals to win a second straight Presidents’ Trophy for posting the league’s best record. After several key offseason departures, this team has holes in the lineup and, unlike in recent years, the Capitals came into this campaign counting on Ovechkin to have a strong season to make up for some of those deficiencies.
“There’s a little more pressure on him this year to produce offensively, and I would think he prefers that,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said.
“He’s got a ton of pride so, if you start questioning his pride, then he’s going to show you,” said Alzner, one of the players who moved on from the Capitals this summer. “And I think that’s probably what happened last year with the way things ended for the team and his goals. And I think that’s his M.O., too: He’s going to show people what’s what.”
MacLellan said the Capitals gave Ovechkin an ideal body weight and body fat percentage that would improve his speed and conditioning. “He’s not unaware that the pace of the game is fast,” MacLellan said. At the start of training camp, he was four pounds lighter than he was the year before. When a reporter in Ottawa joked that reports of potential weight loss had made it seem like he was down 20 pounds, Ovechkin cracked, “I’d be skinny.”
With Ovechkin’s shot able to transcend time and changes in the NHL, Trotz and MacLellan were confident Ovechkin’s power play production wouldn’t suffer as long as he could rip one-timers from his spot in the left faceoff circle. But where they wanted to see a change in Ovechkin was at even strength, where he could improve his production by working harder to get to the front of the net and score by tipping a shot or punching in a rebound.
Ovechkin’s first goal Saturday night was the showstopper, a perfectly placed turnaround slap shot. But it was his third goal that was most encouraging: Ovechkin held his position in front of the net and deflected Kuznetsov’s shot. He has already notched six even-strength goals, nearly halfway to last season’s total after just two games.
“Last year, it was a lot of outside stuff — shot only,” Trotz said. “When he’s moving his feet, he’s a big man, and he’s hard to stop.”
Some snickered when Trotz said the bar for Ovechkin is still 50 goals. Ovechkin’s current goal-scoring pace: 287.
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