ARLINGTON, Va. — Watch Alex Ovechkin closely this season and maybe you'll see what Barry Trotz sees.
"Visually, (he's) just skating," the Washington Capitals' coach said. "When he's skating, he's effective. I just think he's skating better."
Ovechkin didn't just start skating like this at age 32, but there's a noticeable burst in his step, a determination all over the ice. The result is Ovechkin leading the NHL with 26 goals at the halfway point and on pace for the eighth 50-goal season of his 13-year career.
If he does it, Ovechkin would join Hockey Hall of Famers Johnny Bucyk, Bobby Hull and Phil Esposito and still-active Jaromir Jagr as the only players to score 50 goals in a season at 32 or older.
"I'm not 25 years old or 20 years old who's trying to reach that kind of milestone," Ovechkin said, "but if I did it, it would be pretty sick."
Fifty is very much in reach for the Russian superstar, who already has more even-strength goals than he did all of last season. Around the league, there's a notion that it's just Ovechkin being back to his old Ovechkin self.
"He's scoring at the top of the league, so he's doing something right," Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's such a dangerous threat when he touches the puck. He finds the open spots, and he doesn't need a second to get it off, so his shot's lethal."
Ovechkin leads the NHL in shots, just as he has in 10 of his first 12 seasons. And his 14.4 shooting percentage is the third-best of his career.
Yet inside the Capitals' locker room, players know it's more than that. Ovechkin has always had a wicked shot that has made him the best goal-scorer of this generation, so they look at his legs and feet to explain the improvement.
"He's starting to skate again, which is allowing him to create more unique offence," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "He's going out there and trying to create stuff as opposed to waiting for others to create things for him. He's not just relying on his shot; he's realizing that he has more than just that to give."
With less offensive depth this season, Ovechkin has scored 22.6 per cent of the Capitals' goals — one year after his 33 goals accounted for only 12.6 per cent of their scoring. Trotz sees Ovechkin with a little jump in his game more nights than last year, which is important because Washington needs it.
Last season, when the Capitals were atop the NHL, they reduced Ovechkin's ice time to prepare him for the long haul and get him in peak shape for the playoffs. They don't have that luxury this time, so Ovechkin has embraced the challenge of getting back to his high-scoring ways.
"He's obviously always passionate but it seems that he's playing with a little bit of a chip of a shoulder," defenceman John Carlson said. "He's been able to create some vintage goals."
Maybe it's the sticks. After using Bauer for the past six years, Ovechkin went back to CCM equipment prior to this season, and he scored nine goals in his first five games. There is daily interactions between Ovechkin and CCM to ensure the tools are perfect.
"For me, the most important thing is the sticks," Ovechkin said. "I feel good about it, and I feel comfortable."
One reason Ovechkin has 584 goals — second among active players to Jagr's 766 — is the custom CCM and Bauer sticks he has used. New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said the flex of Ovechkin's stick makes the winger's shot more unpredictable than others', and then you add in some natural abilities.
"You see a lot of goalies read it wrong — a lot of his shots go through guys, not always top shelf," Lundqvist said. "He's in the right place, but also he can score from a place where most guys can't. From that distance, a lot of guys can't score from there, but he can."
Rangers defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk knows all about the difficult balance of trying to play tight on Ovechkin but not getting beat because of how quick he can get his shot off. Not only has Shattenkirk played against Ovechkin for parts of eight seasons, the defenceman also watched him play and practice when he was traded to the Capitals last season.
"If he just gets a foot of room, of space, he's able to get that shot off," Shattenkirk said. "That's the hard part about him is that he'll draw you away from plays where you need to be to make good defensive plays, but if you give him too much room, when those guys find him he has the ability to score from really anywhere."
A big part of Ovechkin's success this year is that his game hasn't just started when he touches the puck. Never needing to be a strong defensive player, Ovechkin has been hustling back down the ice to help teammates retreat and recover.
"I turned the puck over (recently) and he backchecked," winger Tom Wilson said. "He was the first guy back and caused the turnover. He's playing hard right now."
Ovechkin calls his scoring pace "luck" and pointed to shooting more often than passing. A top-line reunion with centre Nicklas Backstrom around Thanksgiving also reignited the Capitals' offence, and Ovechkin is enjoying how well he and his linemates are playing as much as putting up these numbers.
"I think it's not about one guy. It's all five guys who are out there, especially our three forwards moving, passing," Ovechkin said. "It's fun to play."
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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