The last time Alex Ovechkin was in Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena, he was on the ice so long his feet started to ache. As the Washington Capitals celebrated their first Stanley Cup there, Ovechkin quickly traded his skates for something more comfortable, Evgeny Kuznetsov’s slippers, and then took his time waddling around the ice with the trophy, the last player back to the locker room.
That capped the longest season of Ovechkin’s career with 106 games, and just six months later, he and the Capitals are 26 games into a new year and back in Las Vegas for the first time. After all that hockey and an offseason that was a month shorter, Ovechkin is still taking his time on the ice. Skating 21:10 per game, he’s playing his most since the 2010-11 season, when he was 25, and his ice time is up a full minute from last season.
“I think it’s good for my body,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes you play 16 minutes, sometimes you play 15 minutes, and you’re just like, am I in the game or not? But if you play a 20-, 21-minute game, you’re into the game, you’re in a rhythm and you feel better.”
His 19 goals and 13 assists, both more than what he had at this time last season, indicate he’s still got plenty of energy. But is it possible to play Ovechkin too much? It’s something Capitals Coach Todd Reirden has had to consider as his 33-year-old superstar winger is the oldest forward in the league averaging more than 21 minutes per game.
“It’s definitely a thing that’s possible,” Reirden said about playing his star too much, adding that he monitors his ice time every period. Against the New Jersey Devils on Friday, Reirden saw Ovechkin had played fewer than five minutes in the first period, so he felt comfortable playing him more in the second and third frames. Ovechkin ultimately skated 21:29 in the 6-3 Capitals win, and 9:16 of that came in the third period, when Reirden had Ovechkin on the ice to help protect the lead at the end of the game. As opposing teams have pulled their goaltender for an extra attacker in the final minutes, Reirden has often deployed Ovechkin, reliable enough to not only put the game out of reach with an empty-net goal but also defend well against six opposing skaters.
“I like it, obviously,” Ovechkin said. “You want to be out there. It’s all about trust.”
Rather than suffer from a Stanley Cup hangover, Ovechkin has instead carried over some of his good habits from last postseason, when he played the best two-way hockey of his career. The Capitals were impressed with Ovechkin’s conditioning after a short summer, appearing even trimmer than he did a year ago, when the team had made a point of wanting him to arrive to training camp in better shape. That helps in carrying a heavy workload, but beyond his physical ability to play that many minutes 14 years into his career, Reirden believes Ovechkin has earned his time on ice.
“This for me is the best I’ve seen him play two-way hockey in the regular season,” Reirden said.
“You can tell he’s aware, trying to do the right things without the puck and be in the right positions,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It’s a habit that can fade away, and he’s done a good job keeping at it and not letting it slide. It’d be easy to revert back to some old bad habits, but you can physically see he’s been conscious of it and trying to do the right things all of the time while still producing. That’s the key, I think, to believing it. If you’re told to play the game one way, but it’s not producing, for a guy like that, it’s hard to believe in that way of playing the game.”
In the days after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup, Ovechkin watched one of the team’s games from the first round of the postseason and was baffled by how out of position he was defensively at times. There’s a significant drop in commitment and attention to detail for all players from the playoffs to the regular season, but now that Ovechkin knows how responsibly he can play, he’s largely maintained it. This has been especially true as he and center Nicklas Backstrom have been matched against other teams’ best forwards. He’s done so while averaging 1.23 points per game, on pace for his best season since the 2009-10 campaign in which he scored 50 goals with 59 assists.
“When you get success as a team and as an individual, you don’t want to change anything,” Ovechkin said. “How we played last year, I think that give us what we want, you know? Why would you change it? I’m just trying to do the same thing.”
Two seasons ago, the Capitals purposefully lowered Ovechkin’s minutes to a career-low 18:22 per game in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs, and the result was one of his worst offensive seasons with 33 goals and 36 assists. He played roughly a minute more in the playoffs, but he struggled then, too. Washington went back to playing Ovechkin more than 20 minutes per game last year, and his 49-goal, 87-point campaign was his best in eight seasons. Then skating an average of 20:44 in 24 playoff games, he scored a team-best 15 goals with 12 assists to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the postseason.
“A player like Ovi, the more ice time he gets, the better he’s going to be,” Backstrom said. “I just think he gets that confidence when he gets more touches out there and gets more involved.”
Ovechkin’s ice time gets inflated depending on how many power plays the Capitals get within a game. While other players in Washington’s 1-3-1 man-advantage formation are constantly moving, Ovechkin conserves some energy by staying largely stagnant near the left faceoff circle, though firing 100-mph slap shots from that spot can be exhausting, too. He often stays on the ice for nearly the entire two-minute power play, and he leads the league with 4:35 per game on the power play. Florida’s Vincent Trocheck is second, and he’s 29 seconds back of that.
But Ovechkin is also averaging the most even-strength ice time of any forward on the team as Reirden has occasionally double-shifted him at the end of a period.
“He’s a pretty remarkable athlete,” Niskanen said. “It really is hard to explain how a guy that big can move like he does and have the stamina that he does, but I think with him, he’s such a competitor that he wants to score and wants to make a difference and wants to win, he overcomes anything. He’s so powerful that he can make a lot of things happen out of nothing, and he doesn’t need a ton of energy to do it, which doesn’t make any sense physiologically.”
Consider that Ovechkin has averaged nearly 21 minutes per game in 1,029 regular-season games and another 21:18 in 121 playoff games over his career – and that’s not even counting international competition with Olympics and World Championships – and it seems even more remarkable. He has never been seriously injured, and he has missed more than four games in a season just once.
He rarely wants to leave the ice ,and how long he can keep that going isn’t something that has concerned him yet.
“I hope my body is going to feel the same,” Ovechkin said. “Of course you have some bruises and some soreness, but it’s fine. You get used to it.”
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