Over the course of an illustrious 12-year career, Alex Ovechkin has become renowned for scoring breathtaking goals. But if you’ve been paying close attention this season, you’ve noticed a new wrinkle in his game: the Capitals’ captain has been going to the net far more frequently in search goals that don’t make the highlights.
And that's why, for several minutes at the end of Monday’s practice, Ovechkin parked himself at the top of the crease as an assistant coach fired shots at the net.
It takes practice to hit the upper corner from the circle with a one-timer. It also takes practice to change the direction of a slap shot.
“The game keeps changing, so he’s looking for different ways to contribute,” Coach Barry Trotz explained. “He’s got a lot more goals in that blue paint. He can always pop out to his spots. He’s always going to get his shots off the rush. He’s just looking to add to his game. He’s a big, heavy, strong guy and once he goes [to the net] he’s almost impossible to move. And with those hands that he has, if he finds any loose pucks, I’m pretty sure he’s going to get a pretty good look.”
Ovechkin entered Monday’s games tied for third in the NHL with 12 goals. Four of those tallies came within just a few feet of the net—two on rebounds and two the result of redirections at the top of the blue paint.
They weren’t pretty. But all goals count the same on the score sheet.
“Whatever it takes,” Ovechkin said. “The defenses are skating well. The forwards [are] going back. Sometimes, you just have to find different ways to score. Obviously, in front of the net, there’s lots of rebounds. Especially with teams who play right now, the goalie give up lots of rebounds. You have to go out there and try to find it.”
This doesn’t mean Ovechkin is done scoring the pretty ones. He’s not. Against St. Louis just three games ago, he capped his 16th career hat trick with a beautiful rip off the rush. It just means he's got another tool in the toolbox.
Trotz first broached the topic of going to the net with Ovechkin over the summer, noting that it was more of a suggestion rather than a directive.
“[Coaches] talk in philosophy,” Trotz said, “but the player gets the best feel. They’re the one that plays. It’s easy for me to look at tape and say, ‘Well, you should be here.’ Some of it is instinctive. Some of it is who you play with. So to say, ‘You should be here all the time’ … there’s a little bit of a component of feel as a player. I can’t tell him how to score goals. He’s done [that] way too long and too well. But I can tell him that he can grow his game, and here are some areas where you can grow your game so that you can get goals the way the game is [now] presenting it[self].”
If Monday’s practice was any indication, Ovechkin still has not mastered the craft of redirecting pucks in front. In fact, he appeared to miss more pucks than he deflected. But that’s why he was there, long after many of his teammates had left the ice.
“Puck can hit you anywhere,” Ovechkin said if the challenges of providing a net front presence. “It’s kind of a hard thing. But it’s priceless. If you go to the net, you can find the prize out there.”
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