NEW YORK - Among other things, Capitals coach Barry Trotz is a storyteller. So, after seeing Alex Ovechkin dominate the Rangers with an Ovi-esque goal and a Gretzky-esque pass from behind the net in the Caps’ thrilling 2-1 win over the Rangers on Thursday night, Trotz pulled the curtain back on his first sit-down with his 29-year-old captain.
It occurred in Las Vegas, of all places.
“I met him in Vegas for the NHL awards,” Trotz recalled. “We spent probably four or five hours. I had about 45 or 50 questions.”
Right then and there, Ovechkin had a choice to make. With seven years and $70 million remaining on his 13-year, $124 million contract with the Capitals, Ovechkin could have smiled politely at Trotz, gotten up from wherever they were sitting, and enjoyed the sights and sounds and tastes of Vegas.
Instead, he listened to the constructive criticisms from Trotz that must have tasted like dirty water.
“Really, what I told him is that I wanted him to be more active,” Trotz said. “I thought he had too much glide in his game. When I was in the other conference we talked about how he wasn’t skating and how easy he is to cover.”
Trotz’s directive with Ovechkin was fairly simple. When Ovechkin had the puck he could be as creative as he wanted. But when he did not have the puck, he needed to do what Trotz wanted of him. And that meant doing all the hard things that well-rounded hockey players do – backchecking, using his body in the defensive zone, finishing checks, and yes, blocking shots when necessary.
The result, of course, was a league-leading 53 goals and an incredible plus-45 improvement in his plus-minus ratio, from a minus-35 last season to a plus-10 this season.
And in Game 1 against the Rangers, the new Alex Ovechkin was pretty much unstoppable.
Matched against the Rangers’ top line of Rick Nash, Derrick Brassard and Marty St. Louis, along with the dynamic duo defense pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, the Caps’ top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Joel Ward were dominant.
Given more open ice than he had seen in any game against the Islanders in Round 1, Ovechkin opened the scoring late in the first period on the power play, using Dan Boyle as a screen and blasting a shot past Henrik Lundqvist and just under the crossbar.
“I don’t see too many goalies stopping that, to be honest,” Ward said. “If you give us all 100 pucks no one’s going to hit that spot. What a beast he is. And what a shot.”
But it wasn’t just Ovechkin’s powerful shot that had the Rangers licking their wounds on Thursday night. And it wasn’t just that extraordinary pass Ovechkin made to Ward from behind the net, a reverse pass that caught everyone, including Lundqvist, by surprise.
Ovechkin had 12 shot attempts in Game 1 – six on net, three misses and three that were blocked. And as Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein learned when his left arm was broken by an Ovechkin slapshot on March 11, there is an inherent risk in stepping in front of one of those slapshots.
By the way, Ovechkin also blocked a shot in Game 1 and was noticeable on nearly every shift, so much so that Trotz began double shifting him following TV timeouts.
That trust dates all the way back to that warm afternoon in Vegs, when Trotz learned something about Ovechkin he never knew.
“He’s a guy that I think was maybe a little miscast in the past,” Trotz said. “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.”
It’s worth keeping in mind that Trotz and Ovechkin have something else in common. Neither has made it past the second round of the playoffs.
Thanks to that long chat in Vegas and the long days that followed, they are now three wins away from checking that item off their career bucket list.