Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin celebrates a goal against the Montreal Canadiens by teammate Jack Hillen during third period NHL hockey action Tuesday, April 9, 2013 in Montreal. The Capitals beat the Canadiens 3-2.
Photograph by: Paul Chiasson, The Canadian Press
MONTREAL — There is a statistic the Washington Capitals are using to chart the play of Alexander Ovechkin, something that probably means more to the club than the sniper's goals scored.
Which at a league-leading 26 goals, including a dazzling effort Tuesday in the Capitals' 3-2 win over the Canadiens, wasn't half bad.
Washington is tracking their superstar's involvement in every game by his touches of the puck, a stat you won't find on any official sheet.
And while Caps coach Adam Oates was playing coy with an average before Tuesday's victory, it's probably in the range of 50 touches or more per game.
"It's way more than you'd think. It's a lot," said Oates, the rookie bench boss. "It's a good number for us.
"It's been an adjustment for Alex and his linemates (centre Nicklas Backstrom and left-winger Marcus Johansson). He has the puck more so they need to learn where they have to go now, as opposed to them doing the work."
Ovechkin was less than pleased — he sulked, in fact — at the beginning of the season when Oates moved him from his familiar left wing to the right side. With the exception of a brief shift back to the left with linemates who are more plumbers than cabinet-makers, he's been on the right.
Seventeen goals in his past 15 games and six in his past three would suggest that Ovechkin has made the adjustment quite nicely.
"It was kind of hard," he said of the early days of the switch. "I had lots of meetings with Oatsie, but sometimes you have to do it to get success for yourself and your team.
"There are different angles, different skating (on the right side). But right now I get more touches of the puck, that's the most important thing. I want to touch the puck in the neutral zone and fly into the offensive zone."
Maybe this is a rebirth of Ovechkin, who last season under coach Dale Hunter listlessly finished with 65 points, fully 20 back of his career low-water mark.
As he struggled, there was the sense that his skills were being dwarfed by his ego, a hulking talent who had become an unmotivated, 6-foot-3, 230-pound invisible man.
Ovechkin had been written off by many who sniffed with a strange satisfaction that he had flamed out well before his time.
But under Oates, a Hall of Famer and once a set-up man for Brett Hull in St. Louis, Ovi is showing a good bit of his former brilliance. Much of that credit goes to his new coach, who understands the mindset of a natural goal-scorer and is guiding Ovechkin accordingly.
"In a sense, Alex and Brett are kind of similar," Oates said. "I know what Alex feels every night: that he has to score goals for us to win. That's what he gets paid for. I understand that, but I also want to let him know he's got to be involved in more of the game.
"For Alex to change position, for him to have the success he's had for himself and the team, shows how unselfish he is."
Oates believes that Ovechkin is indeed more dangerous on the right side than the left, more involved in every shift at even strength and still able to rip his ferocious one-timers on the power-play.
"Alex is such a weapon and his physical attributes are so unique that (opponents) have to worry about him every shift," Oates said, his star laying out a game-high eight hits on Tuesday.
Ovechkin said that, even during the firestorm of criticism that threatened to immolate him, he didn't lose self-confidence. And if he won't fully expose the unhappiness he felt under Hunter, the hints are strong, even if the "we" and "us" clearly mean "I".
"Sometimes, I'm not going to score every game," he said before his elegant undressing of Habs' Michael Ryder for his team's first goal.
"But if I don't, I'll have to do simple little things to help the team win. The most important thing is that (Oates) understands my situation and he gives us the opportunity to show what we can do out there. I don't think we had that kind of opportunity last year. . . .
"It's no secret that I have a good relationship with Oatsie. I feel trust and I just want to go out there and play hockey. I was missing that last year. Right now, it's a fun time."
The Capitals are in a fight for their playoff lives, coming to Montreal atop the Southeast Division but also one brief stumble from dropping below the postseason cutoff.
The 8-1-1 run on which they arrived here was a vast improvement over the 2-8-1 record with which they tripped out of the gate.
"Thank God we didn't play here," Oates said with gallows humour, imagining the noose had his bumbling team been called the Canadiens. "It was really tough but no one complained."
Nor is a discouraging word coming today from anyone on the Capitals, least of all Ovechkin, who says he feels "unbelievable" physically after playing through the lockout with Dynamo Moscow of the KHL.
It was only with another question about his having rediscovered his enjoyment for hockey that Ovi bristled, just a bit.
"Let's just talk about different stuff," he said, clearly having turned that page.
And then he broke into the grin of a guy who's having a grand time thriving again at the game he loves, his next goal just a few hours away.
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