WASHINGTON (AP) - Alex Ovechkin's game had grown so stale and incomplete that, a year ago, he was being benched late in games.
The two-time MVP's performances are back to being predictable - in a way the Washington Capitals have to love.
After scoring five times in his last two games to grab a share of the NHL goal-scoring lead, Ovechkin tries to help the Capitals remain alone atop the Southeast Division on Tuesday night when they visit the Northeast-leading Montreal Canadiens.
The 27-year-old Russian found himself benched by defensive-minded coach Dale Hunter at times late in games last season, particularly when the Capitals (20-17-2) held a lead.
Enter Adam Oates, who moved Ovechkin from left wing to right wing and endured a miserable start to a season shortened by a labor dispute. Oates now has the Capitals - and Ovechkin - back on track. Washington has taken over first place in the Southeast, and Ovechkin looks like the Alexander the Great of old, netting 16 goals in 14 games to move into a tie for the NHL's goal-scoring lead with Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos.
Sounds like the risky move has paid off.
"He never met me before," Oates said of Ovechkin. "And I totally respect who he is, and what he's accomplished. And when you suggest something like that, it has to be a meeting of the minds and private conversations, and he had to trust me. It takes a little time, and obviously I hope he does now. We're going in the right direction."
The Capitals' run of five consecutive playoff appearances was in danger of coming to an end after a 2-8-1 start. Their play was uneven and ragged through February, and Oates said on Feb. 26 that his players were only about "60-70 percent" along the way toward getting his system down pat.
Then, sometime in March, Oates figured they were there - or at least close enough.
"Quite honestly, for the last month, we didn't talk about it," Oates said. "It's just the way we play. It's not my system or anybody's, it's just the way we play hockey. The guys know it, and when we make mistakes, it's just a team making mistakes, that's it."
Central to the turnaround is Ovechkin, who is getting the puck in different positions and no longer relies heavily on the same familiar moves to try to beat an opponent. He has 25 goals in 39 games - a 50-plus-goal pace over an 82-game season that evokes memories of his MVP seasons of 2007-08 and 2008-09.
And there's no more limiting his minutes with a lead. He was still out there when the Capitals were holding on to a one-goal lead late against Tampa Bay on Sunday. Ovechkin scored an empty-netter - his second goal of the game - to finish off the 4-2 win.
The Capitals were held off the board until the 17:37 mark of the third period in their only other meeting with Montreal (25-8-5) this season. That Joey Crabb goal came far too late in a 4-1 loss, Washington's first in regulation in this regular-season series since February 2010 after a 7-0-1 stretch.
While the Capitals are two points ahead of Winnipeg for the Southeast lead, the Canadiens are trying to stave off Boston atop the Northeast. Montreal grabbed the lead by a point with Saturday's 2-1 win over the Bruins, their second one-goal victory in the series in 11 days.
Starting with that first victory over Boston, the Canadiens have won five of their last six.
"We're finding ways to win games," center Lars Eller said. "... There's a lot to like about this team. Really. But there are still 10 games to go, and if you want to go to the Stanley Cup finals you have to be good enough to beat every team. You want to finish with as good a record as you can and feel good going in, and this one felt really good."
Not all is well with Montreal, however. The Canadiens found out Monday defenseman Alexei Emelin will miss the rest of the season because of a torn knee ligament suffered in a collision with Boston's Milan Lucic on Saturday.
Emelin had 12 points this season, but Montreal isn't hurting for offensive production lately thanks to Michael Ryder and P.K. Subban. Ryder has six goals and an assist in his last six games, and Subban has a goal and nine assists in that same stretch.
Subban has only one point - an assist - in eight career games against Washington.
Ovechkin has one goal in the series' last four contests.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved