Monday, April 18, 2011

Ovechkin Showing New Side to His Game

By Mike Chen

If the Washington Capitals make it to the Eastern Conference Final and beyond, there's a lot of different aspects of their game to cite. The team is more defensively responsible thanks to a roster-wide change in culture, and trade-deadline acquisition Jason Arnott helps establish necessary depth for secondary scoring. However, as always, the Caps go as far as superstar Alex Ovechkin goes. If the first few games of the playoffs mean anything, Washington's fans could be in for a long — and rough-and-tumble — run.

Ovechkin's always been one of the game's biggest hitters. He's physical and fearless, throwing his body around with reckless abandon — so much so that rumors swirled that his off-pace this season had as much to do with saving his body for the post-season than various bumps or bruises.

The early returns on Ovechkin's game show that he's indeed a changed man. The Ovechkin goal log featured many shots of the exciting nature: a breakaway rush, a one-timer from the point, and so on. Not too many of those goals from past seasons would have had Ovechkin furiously banging away at the puck in the goalie's pads, all while being manhandled by a defenseman.

Yet, that's the Ovechkin we've seen so far this season. His trademark physicality isn't just about jarring the opposition on a big hit, it's about doing whatever it takes to meet the end goal. There's no doubt that Ovechkin cared before, as he seems to be the type of person that's passionate in anything he does. The difference so far in this post-season is that Ovechkin seems to be channeling that passion in a more focused way. Perhaps it took some time for the true weight of the captain's C to sink in with Ovechkin, or maybe it's just that one of the game's most skilled players is maturing with age. Whatever the case, it appears the fun-loving Ovechkin has taken a turn for the serious, and his dialed-in effort is leading by example.

Great players change over the years. Look at how Mike Modano and Steve Yzerman transformed their respective styles to become all-around players. Ovechkin's oft-mentioned rival Sidney Crosby seems to have taken one trait in each off-season and fine-tuned it into a new strength (face-offs, shooting).

That's not to say that we'll be talking about Ovechkin for the Selke Trophy in a year or two. However, The Great 8 is certainly showing a different side to his game. The postseason is still young, and the Caps haven't been perfect, but Ovechkin's willingness to add gritty play for dirty goals creates a necessary dimension. It's the difference between being considered the most-skilled player in the game and the best player in the game.

This might be the final step in Ovechkin's evolution. Will this lead Washington to the Stanley Cup? It certainly couldn't hurt.

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