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Monday, 8 April 2013

Alex Ovechkin is still Alex Ovechkin

Professional athletes, especially hockey players, go through different phases in their careers. Some players start slow and pick up steam latter on while others enter with a bang and slowly fizzle out. For Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin the latter seemed to be true.

alex-ovechkinOvechkin burst onto the NHL scene in 2005 scoring 52 goals and putting up 106 points in his rookie season. In the next four season he would score no less than 46 goals in each season and put up career numbers in 2007 when he scored 65 goals and notched 112 points. Alex Ovechkin was on top of the proverbial hockey world, winning trophies for individual accolades left, right and center. But one thing was missing, playoff success.

Despite being one of the most exciting and electrifying players in the NHL, Ovechkin still faced never ender scrutiny about his game. Many said he was a one-dimensional player who couldn't play defence and was selfish.

Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau decided he would transform Alex Ovechkin into that dynamic two-way player in order to better the Capitals as a whole. This new philosophy saw Ovechkin's scoring production plummet and he scored less than 40 goals for the first time in his NHL career.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2013 Alex Ovechkin still hadn't re-found his game, scoring just two goals in the teams first 10 games. Immediately discussions began that Ovechkin was no longer an elite player and had fallen from grace. The negativity surrounding the Russian sniper was absurd everyone was ready to write off the 27 year-old former superstar.

But to steal a line from the Russian himself; "You forgot to flush him down the toilet." Whoever's job it was to flush that toilet needs to be fired because Alex Ovechkin is back. He now has 23 goals in his teams last 29 games including a stretch that has seen him score 16 goals and add 7 assists in the last 14 games.

With two goals in Sunday nights win Ovechkin is tied with Steven Stamkos for the lead in the scoring race with 25 goals. It appears Alex Ovechkin is back, but it begs the question did he really go anywhere in the first place?

Every athlete goes through slumps at some point in their game. Some slumps are caused by health issues like Sidney Crosby has been dealing with, others are caused by maturity and a need to grow up like Patrick Kane. Even when Ovechkin was going through his "slump" he still put up 30+ goals. Sure it may not have been the 50+ goals we've become accustomed to but most teams would love players to score 30 goals during a slump.

One thing you have to remember is that when you have a player as skilled and gifted as Alex Ovechkin that skill doesn't just vanish! Ovechkin didn't just wake up one morning and turn into a "normal" player, he's always had the skill he showed early in his career and is showing now. He just didn't know how to use that skill without getting in trouble.

Alex Ovechkin is an exciting player who brings fans to games and scores highlight reel goals, but that often doesn't translate well to a team game. Coaches Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter both tried to change Ovechkin's game and force him to play defence. He was forced to play outside his comfort zone and was told by coaches that they'd rather win games 1-0 than 7-5. He was trashed in front of the media by his coaches and teammates- no matter where he turned everyone wanted to change him or criticize his game.

Now that Adam Oates is behind the Capitals bench, Alex Ovechkin seems to have found a coach he can trust. Yes Oates moved him from  the left side to the right side but the message was still the same- score goals. Oates is the first coach for the Capitals that has earned the respect and trust of Ovechkin.
“It’s respect. He never met me before. I totally respect who he is and what he’s accomplished and when you suggest something like that it has to be a meeting of the minds, with private conversations and he had to trust me." ~ Adam Oates

Alex Ovechkin feels comfortable know that his coach has faith in him and isn't going to try and change his game or throw him under the bus. That trust between player and coach is so key in the NHL today.
"This year is much different. It’s trust. I don’t have that last year. When you have those kind of feelings you want to go out there and play for your coach and do your best out there.” ~ Alex Ovechkin

NHL: New York Rangers at Washington CapitalsThings are clicking for the great 8 and as a result Alex Ovechkin is starting to turn heads again. He's finding success on the power play again scoring 14 goals on the man advantage through 39 games, he's re-found the chemistry with Nicklas Backstrom and most importantly he trusts his coach.

Alex Ovechkin has evolved as a player through all the changes over the last 3-4 seasons. He's become more defencive, passes the puck more and is willing to go to the dirty areas. But what really stands out is the fact that Alex Ovechkin was on the ice with his team up one goal in the final minute of the game.

Early in that career that would never happen, they'd staple him to bench in close games. Now that there's trust, understanding and communication between Alex Ovechkin and Adam Oates, Ovechkin can be counted on to do the little things.

Is Alex Ovechkin's resurgance enough to earn him consideration for the MVP award? Alex Ovechkin is back and bette than before, he's still an elite NHL player who is going to prove all his critics wrong. The Washington Capitals are only as good as their star player and captain, now that he's ready to play they're making a run for the playoffs.

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