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Alex Ovechkin has 475 career goals, three Hart Trophies and four goal-scoring titles during his NHL career. What he doesn’t have: an appearance in the Eastern Conference Final, let alone a Stanley Cup ring.
His career has been as characterized by his incredible regular-season performances as it has been by the Washington Capitals’ playoff failures. It’s not for a lack of production by Ovechkin, who now has 68 points in 66 career playoff games, including 34 goals.
It’s not for a lack of desire, either … although that desire can sometimes hurt more than help.
Ovechkin tried to do too much on his own in the past. Tried to take the team on his broad shoulders and carry it. Tried to force the issue in tight games, leading to ineffective performances in their many Game 7s.
Meanwhile, he played for three different coaches in a short span; by the time Adam Oates reached his end with a non-playoff year, Ovechkin sounded like he was at his wit’s end after a minus-35 season with 51 goals.
“If you remember when [Coach Dale] Hunter was here, I didn’t score goals, and you guys said, ‘Why didn’t you score goals?’ And I said my job is to block shots. The whole world said ‘Ovi stopped playing like he used to play’ and, ‘He’s gone. We’re never going to see him again.’ I don’t want to turn my back on this position again,” said Ovechkin. “I get paid to score goals. I scored 50. You can’t pick one guy in one position and say he didn’t do his job. Look at everyone. It kind of sucks to have that kind of minus, but it’s not only one player out there,” he said on April 14, 2014.
Ovechkin had been making noise for the last few years about not wanting to be THE GUY in the playoffs. That he’d rather be a team player in the postseason rather than a one-man show.
So it took his fourth coach in four years to give him permission to be a team player, and have it stick.
Barry Trotz met with Ovechkin at the NHL Awards last June, and laid out his philosophy. He needed his start captain to buy-in.
“He’s a guy that I think was maybe a little miscast in the past,” Trotz said, via CSN Washington. “Ovi is one of those guys that really wants to win. He’s won virtually every award you can win individually and I think he’s at a real good time in his career, and I think we’re going to benefit from that. Now he wants to do something team-wise. For him to grow as a leader, that was my mandate with him. I’m going to share all my experiences with him and teach him how to lead and he’s bought in.”
The first test for this relationship was in the first round against the New York Islanders. He scored two goals and had three assists.
“I saw growth in Alex. As Alex went through the series, there were times when I saw him try to do too many things himself. As the series went on, you could see that his team game was coming,” said Trotz after their Game 7 win.
“Alex always puts it on his shoulders – ‘I have to score, I have to score, if I don’t score I’m not doing my job. ’ I think he started to see the value in that if he doesn’t score, he could still do his job. There’s other ways you can contribute, and I think Alex recognizes that. It’s refreshing for him. That’s the next step in his growth as a leader on this team.”
Of course, when called upon, Ovechkin can still be a difference-maker. He scored a power-play goal in Game 1 against the New York Rangers and made a brilliant pass to Joel Ward for the last-second game-winner. Game 2 of the series is Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET/9:30 a.m. PT.
Alex Ovechkin has seen his share of playoff failures from his team. Barry Trotz hopes he’s learned that the being a team player can lead to playoff success.
“Everything that you do in the playoffs, you learn from it. Failure shouldn’t be your undertaker,” he said.