(ABC)–For all of his goals and trio of MVP trophies, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin never has been past the second round of the NHL playoffs.
Didn’t even qualify at all a year ago.
So 23 months will have passed between postseason games for Ovechkin when his Capitals host John Tavares and the New York Islanders on Wednesday night to begin their first-round Eastern Conference series.
“He seems to be having more fun, to me. I think it’s more enjoyable for him to be in this environment,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said after a team practice earlier this week.
“He’s more comfortable with his game, the way it is now – and it’s a lot more fun when you’re playing as a team and you’re winning as a team. So he’s more enthusiastic.”
Ovechkin scored 53 goals to lead the league for the third consecutive season and fifth time overall. One key difference for the Russian wing, who’s back on the left side after spending a season on the right: A rating of plus-10, quite an improvement over the minus-35 of a year earlier.
“He had something to prove. He took criticism for that minus number last year and I think he wanted to prove that he could play within a structure. He could do the same things he’s done offensively within a structured team environment and have team success, too,” MacLellan said. “That was high on his priority list coming into this year.”
After time as a go-go-go offensive juggernaut and as a grind-it-out defensive team, the Capitals have found success this season with a more balanced – and adjustable – system under new head coach Barry Trotz.
Not only has Ovechkin’s scoring pace remained elite, but he also seems to appreciate the current group’s potential for success in the postseason.
“It’s just a different team, I think, right now, compared with the last couple years. A mature team. An experienced team,” the 29-year-old Ovechkin said. “We just have to play our game, I think. If we’re going to play our game … we’re going to be good.”
So much of the best-of-seven series figures to hinge on the play of Ovechkin and Tavares, New York’s captain.
The 24-year-old Tavares enters his second career playoff series after finishing fourth to Ovechkin with 38 goals and second in the league – two spots ahead of Ovechkin – with 86 points.
“He’s a leader for their team,” Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. “He makes them tick.”