A bad season for Alex Ovechkin? Not if you consider the bigger goal
TORONTO -- There has been so much focus this season on Alex Ovechkin's career-low offensive numbers and so little emphasis on why he's been willing to sacrifice those individual totals.
It's all in the eye in the beholder, right?
Is Ovechkin having a so-so offensive season or is he being the ultimate "team first" guy by embracing his club's new ways?
The Washington Capitals have transformed themselves this season from free-wheeling offensive machine to two-way, responsible play. They're ranked fourth in goals against per game (2.35) compared to 16th last season (2.77).
In doing so, they had to drag down their franchise player's offensive numbers. We sat down with Ovechkin on Tuesday morning in the visitors' dressing room at Air Canada Centre and one thing he made clear is he's on board with what's transpired.
"Everyone here just wants to win so badly,'' Ovechkin told ESPN.com.
Let's not sugar-coat this. The Caps have asked one of the world's most electrifying players to shift it down a gear once in a while.
"Hey, it's a tough transition from being a thoroughbred, where you're used to going, going, going, to saying, 'You know what? I don't care if I don't win the Art Ross, I don't care if I win all these trophies because I've done all of that. I just want to win the one trophy, and if this is what I have to do to win the one trophy, then that's what I'm going to do,'" Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, who has deftly overseen his team's relaunch, told ESPN.com on Tuesday.
It reminds us of Steve Yzerman's famous adjustment in the early 1990s under Scotty Bowman. After another first-round playoff upset loss, the NHL's all-time winningest coach suggested to Yzerman that if he was willing to sacrifice some offensive numbers and play more of a two-way game, the rest of the group would follow given his stature on the team.
Yzerman didn't need convincing. All he cared about was winning. So down went his individual stats and up went the playoff wins. And soon, the Stanley Cups arrived, too.
"It's a good comparison," Boudreau said after we offered it up.
It's not a perfect one, mind you. Yzerman was a center with defensive responsibilities in his own zone that outweighed a winger's. Ovechkin doesn't have the down-low dirty work a center would, but you see the change when he has the puck.
"We try not to make mistakes in the neutral zone," Ovechkin said. "When we have a situation like a 2-on-3 or a 1-on-3, we try not to make mistakes. We just dump it in and go try to get it. It used to be, on a 2-on-3, we'd try to make a play, give it up and they score a goal."
Dumping it in? Alex Ovechkin? You just know that's counter-intuitive at his core.
"And he doesn't really want to do it [dump it in] and you can see it in his face, but he's doing what's right," Boudreau said. "Especially when you're on a 2-on-3 and he cuts to the middle and loses the puck ... we've seen enough clips where going the other way isn't that much fun."
We threw the Yzerman/Red Wings comparison to Ovechkin, one which he mulled over for a second.
"Of course it's good when some people are going to compare us with Detroit," Ovechkin said. "But they won the Cup, right? We will see what's going to happen. I hope we win this year, but it's going to be hard. Every game in the playoffs will be like a war and we have to be ready."
The organization is ready. We have such a good group of guys in the locker room. Everyone wants to win so badly.” -- Washington captain Alex Ovechkin on the playoffs
That is just the point of what's transpired this season with the Caps: being ready for playoff hockey. The lack of spring success over the past few years forced Washington to change its colors and accept that a certain brand of hockey wins in the playoffs.
But winning over his players wasn't going to fly unless Boudreau had No. 8 on board.
"One of the things that he's done which has been really great is that, when we do video, he really makes a point, that if he made a mistake, to point it out in front of everybody," Boudreau said. "He'll take the heat. He wants to show that he's not above being criticized. I remember the first time that I really did it, and gave it to him pretty good, and I asked him, 'Are you OK?' He said, 'Yeah, everybody saw that, it's great.' So, I mean, he wants that sort of role and he's taken it."
And because of what Boudreau knows from the inside, he bristles at what some people on the outside have said in criticizing Ovechkin for his offensive production.
"It's all they look at," said Boudreau. "He's got 81 points for a team that has scored a lot less goals than it did last year [the Caps were first in the league last season at 3.86 goals per game, now they're 18th at 2.68]. If his power-play numbers were the same [as last year], he'd be leading the league in scoring.
"So, 5-on-5 he's still plus-20 something, he's scored more game-winning goals than anyone in the league, he's done so many good things, but people want to focus on the fact he only has 30 goals."
Well, to be fair, when a player has scored 65 goals in this league, it's only natural for people wonder about a 30-goal campaign. But we get Boudreau's point.
"Well, we'll be lucky in this league this year if we get one 50-goal scorer," Boudreau correctly pointed out. "Everything is down. But are we a better team and is he a better player for it? I think all-around, yeah."
The timing was right for this to happen, Ovechkin said.
"The organization is ready," said the Washington captain. "We have such a good group of guys in the locker room. Everyone wants to win so badly."