By Larry Wigge
They call it Tough Love.
For his first five seasons, Alex Ovechkin skated up a storm, putting up statistics that were incomparable -- four times more than 50 goals and he was even named league Most Valuable Player in 2008 and '09.
But something was missing for the Washington Capitals. The team went home early -- too early -- from the playoffs each spring.
That led to the hiring of Dale Hunter as coach, an honest, hard-working, give-it-all type of player during his 19 years in the NHL. The Hunter law of the jungle meant when the playoffs rolled around you only played as many minutes as you deserved.
And, believe it or not, the Capitals were one game short of reaching the Conference playoffs. Game 7 was on the horizon against the New York Rangers.
"We don't want to stop playing," Ovechkin said, thinking within the lines. "We don't want to finish the season now. We want to continue on. I want to play my best, but it's not about me. It's about everyone."
Ovechkin, whose performance has slumped to 32 and 38 goals the last two season, became a cause celebre. He wound up with one goal, three shots, five hits and three blocked shots in playing 15 minutes and 14 seconds of Washington 2-1 victory over the Rangers. He was all-in, giving it his all.
Thinking of statistics had ended. Thinking of team was considerable.
"He's our leader," forward Troy Brouwer said. "He's our captain. That's what he should be doing out there, leading by example, and he did tonight."
Hunter's rules may seem constricted to anyone who has achieved so much individual success. Yet, it has clicked with Ovechkin, who would gladly give up the minutes to play smart -- for the team.
"He's a team guy," Hunter explained. "The one thing about that is that he has been real fresh for the power play. The power play was good tonight. He actually got the winner on it ... and he was fresh to work on the offensive game."
The idea that Ovechkin needs to be "fresh" for the power play is a new one. In 2007-08, when Ovechkin averaged a career high 23:06 of ice time per game, all he did was lead the NHL with 22 power-play goals.
But times have changed. And the idea of teamwork seems to be entangled within Hunter's rules -- and, after a period of consternation, that is OK with the stubborn super star. The strategy is working.
Ovechkin has thrived in the past by being a volume shooter, with high ice time, meaning that he did not have to worry much about missed opportunities. This was the first season in his career that he did not lead the NHL in shots on goal, and he wound up with 65 points, 20 fewer than his previous career low. Not coincidentally, this was the first time in Ovechkin's career that he averaged less than 20 minutes per game.
"I feel good," Ovechkin said. "You have to suck it up and use the time that Dale gives you."
High-octane speed, his breathtaking moves, his love for contact, plus that marvelous inner drive and wonderfully brilliant creativity and imagination have characterized the 26-year-old from Moscow.
Ovechkin has said, "I play fast. ... Fast track. ... Fast lane. ... Fast forward."
The need for speed is clear to Ovechkin ... when it counts.
"I'm not like all of those .200 hitters who hit the ball 500-feet in batting practice. Or those 4.3 sprinters who can't catch a long pass in a game. I play fast," Ovechkin said, confidently, showing what a quick study he is when it comes to other North American sports like baseball and football.
Confident. Cocky. A regular quote machine, while stilling learning English. Amazing. Alex Ovechkin has gone out there and backed up his bravado at every step.
"He's Pavel Bure in Mark Messier's body," said Capitals GM George McPhee proudly, after taking Ovechkin with the first overall pick in the 2004 Entry Draft.
Others have also praised the wunderkind.
"I don’t know if I’ve seen a player like him," Wayne Gretzky said. "He's a combination of Mike Bossy's scoring ability and Mark Messier's power, with a bit of Kenny Linseman's speed thrown in. You can't knock him over and you can't out-skate him."
"Its like there's a motor inside that drives me to work harder and a voice in my brain (he pauses and points to his head to laugh at this point) that has me thinking a couple of moves ahead," Ovechkin laughed at the All-Star Game recently. "When you're born from great athletes, I think you have kind of a sixth sense when you play. I have my mom and dad to thank for that."
That athletic genes we often talk about is alive and well and boiling over in "Alex the Great" from his parents -- his mom, Tatiana, won Olympic gold medals playing for the Russian women's basketball team in 1976 and 1980 and dad, Mikhail, was a professional soccer player.
"He creates chances by himself ... out of nothing," said Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo.
"He's like the shark in the movie Jaws, circling in the water waiting for blood," said St. Louis Blues President John Davidson.
Ovechkin, the All-Star who is living out his boyhood dream, is usually all smiles.
A big smile erupted on this blue-eyed virtuoso's face. He leaped into the boards and threw a kiss to the Hockey Gods who have blessed him so much.
"When I was younger, this was my dream playing in the NHL, playing with superstars," said Ovechkin. "It's an unbelievable feeling. I'm always smiling because this is my dream."
He likes hip-hop, including Eminem and 50 Cent. He loves filet mignon and green beans. He drives a BMW M6 and plays like a Ferrari, at high speeds and with flair.
"He has that engine inside. He's very, very driven," McPhee said. "He wants to be great. He wants to be that elite guy. Some talented players wilt. He's comfortable with it."
"When you see Ovechkin, you can just tell he loves to play the game," said Gretzky. "So many times you get a player with that much ability and they're shy and they don't feel a responsibility to sell the game, but he's taken it to another level."
Ovechkin didn't grow up playing on a backyard hockey rink like Gretzky did, but nonetheless, he fell in love with the game at a young age while growing up in Moscow. "I was watching TV when I was five, maybe six-years-old, and I had a stick and puck in my hands. When I heard the guy on TV say, 'They score,' I started screaming. I was young, but I remember this moment."
And Ovechkin has already given us plenty of moments to savor in his eight short seasons in the NHL.
"If I had to script what our team needed, it was a charismatic, offensive player who loved life and loved the game," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis told me shortly after Ovechkin won Rookie of the Year honors last June over Sidney Crosby. "When he walks through the door to our locker room, he lights up the room.
"He's a quick study. He learned that scoring goals wasn't the only thing to winning and now he's showing that team maturity.
"This year, he's saying, 'If I score 60 goals and we don't make the playoffs, I've failed.' "
Alex Ovechkin has shown through the years he can do anything in the game with flair. Now, in a more limited amount of ice time, he mental well being is being taxed.
He digging it, sucking it up, whatever you call it. And he's succeeded at doing his best for the Washington Capitals ... with flair.