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After putting up relatively modest numbers in each of the last two seasons—in Ovechkin's case, 32 and 38 qualify as modest goal totals—the Great Eight exploded in the second half of this season, scoring 23 goals in his last 23 games and earning his third Rocket Richard Trophy with an NHL-best 32 goals. His resurgence ignited the Capitals, who won the Southeast Division despite being in last place in the East as recently as March 2. Ovechkin's revival has, of course, been fostered by his trusting relationship with first-year coach Adam Oates, who took over after Dale Hunter stepped down last summer and who stunned the league (and Ovechkin) by moving his star from the left wing to the right in training camp. But some within the organization also point to the positive influence Kirilenko has had.
"Your priorities kind of line up a lot easier [after you've settled down]," center Matt Hendricks says. "You don't find yourself saying, All right, what am I going to do today? Where am I going to go tonight? You get into a routine, and I think [Ovechkin] has that. I think he's happy and he's playing well and all these things have been coming together for him."
General manager George McPhee is sitting in a large conference room in the Capitals' offices atop the Ballston Common Mall in Arlington. Leaning back in a chair with his arms crossed, he slow-blinks as he shakes his head. A shrewd hockey mind, McPhee sees cause and effect play out within the confines of a rink. "I mean, you never know," he says when asked if Ovechkin's improved play has anything to do with love. "But the real [cause of his] transformation has been the coach and the change of position."
When Oates interviewed for the Washington job, the Hall of Fame center—his 1,079 assists rank sixth alltime—had a plan: He wanted to shift Ovechkin from his usual spot at left wing to the right. "Adam was convinced he could make [Ovechkin] a better player," McPhee says. "And he had the evidence to back it up. He had done it with a couple of other players."
As an assistant with the Lightning in 2009, Oates helped left wing Martin St. Louis move to the right side, and St. Louis has thrived, finishing second in points in '10--11 and scoring a league-best 60 this season at age 37. Last year, as an assistant with the Devils, Oates also engineered leftwinger Ilya Kovalchuk's move to the right, which spurred the Russian sniper to score 37 goals and helped New Jersey reach the Stanley Cup finals.
As Oates explains it, the move was about increasing the righthanded Ovechkin's touches. "I wanted my best player to have the puck more," Oates says. "And I felt playing on his off side, there's only so many times he can get the puck. I thought on the other side, I could double the opportunities he could get touching the puck."
From the right Ovechkin can take passes on his forehand and handle pucks along the boards more easily. Playing on the left, he often had to corkscrew his body to the right in order to receive a pass or to shoot. Coming out of the Capitals' zone, his body is in better position to make the rush up the ice.
Ovechkin understood hockey almost exclusively through the lens of a leftwinger; a move from left to right wouldn't be simple or smooth. With just six days of training camp to acclimate, he was wary of the change. "I was not really [thinking] it was going to work," Ovechkin says. "I was not that happy about it because I played my entire life on the left side."
Three games into the season Ovechkin had no goals and just one assist and looked uncomfortable. He asked Oates to move him back to the left. The coach did so without question, but he continued to show his star game tape while explaining how a move to the right could work. About a week later, Ovechkin asked if he could make the move in baby steps, alternating a shift on the left and then a shift on the right, like a swimmer easing into cold, unfamiliar waters. "You're talking someone who has had unlimited success over there [into moving to the other side]," Oates says. "It was going to have to be his idea. I presented it to him, but it was still going to be [him saying] yes or no."
Handedness wasn't the only reason the move made sense; the biggest impetus for change was Ovechkin's predictability on the ice. When he broke into the NHL in 2005, he was able to carry the puck from blue line to blue line down the left side, then cut to the middle and shoot for the corners of the net. But the league's defensemen picked up on the pattern and began to take away his time and space in the neutral zone while blocking his favorite skating lanes to create turnovers. Says McPhee, "The league had figured [him] out."