Alex Ovechkin led the league in goals scored last season with 51, his fifth time topping the 50-goal mark since he entered the league in 2005. However, he was minus-35, making it just the second time in the modern era where a player has scored 50 or more goals but was worse than minus-30 on the season (Mike Bullard, 1983-84). Plus/minus isn’t the best barometer of an individual’s defensive ability, but there are other factors that indicate Ovechkin’s defense has vastly improved this season, starting with limiting even-strength shot attempts against.

“He has been more committed in the defensive zone,” explains Joe Beninati, play-by-play announcer for CSN Washington, who has covered the Capitals since 1994. “He’s been more willing to be in a shot-block lane, more willing to have his stick in the passing lane defensively.”

The renewed commitment is working. Ignoring special teams and lead-protecting situations, Ovechkin has been on the ice for 36.8 shot attempts against per 60 minutes, a huge drop from last year (44.5) and better than his previous low mark of 38.3 in the 2009-10 season.

As a result, the amount of shots in the Captials’ favor with Ovechkin on the ice has also improved. It has languished under 50 percent in each of the past three seasons but has spiked to 54.5 percent in the first year under Barry Trotz. But even more important, this is the first time in four seasons where Ovechkin’s linemates are surrendering more shot attempts per 60 minutes without him on the ice (36.8 with and 37.5 without). In other words, the Caps’ defense suffers when their captain is on the bench. And that decline likely comes in the face of those linemates facing easier opposition, since most teams will focus on stopping Ovechkin with their best defenders.

Less time per shift helps. Last season Ovechkin was on the ice  for 57 seconds per shift at all strengths. This season it is down to 54 seconds. That may not sound like a lot, but it adds up.

“Remember, we are talking about a player that has two or three guys trying to attack him every shift, and doesn’t shy away from contact in his own right,” Beninati said. “So he is creating a lot of commotion, a lot of havoc, a lot of chaos when he is on the ice and it could wear him down.”

For years coaches, fans and pundits alike have been clamoring for Ovechkin to play defense and have pointed to that deficiency as the reason why this team has never won a championship. If that was all that was holding this squad back, there is a very bright future ahead.