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What's fueling Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin's hot start? It might be the sauce

After another early playoff exit last spring, and a dip in goal production, Alex Ovechkin doubled down on his conditioning during the offseason. AP Photo/Nick Wass

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The ritual predates anyone on the Washington Capitals roster. Before home games, for as long as the current Caps can remember, someone places an order for takeout from Mamma Lucia's, a local Italian restaurant.

"It's a tradition from day one," Alex Ovechkin explains. "They have the Italian food always when we came to the rink, and it's very delicious."

After yet another disappointing end to the 2016-17 season -- and another second-round playoff loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins -- many things changed for Ovechkin and the Capitals this season. But his pregame meal was not one of them.

Before Saturday's home opener against the Montreal Canadiens, Ovechkin ordered, as always, pasta with alfredo sauce and chicken from Mamma Lucia. Then he went out and recorded his second-consecutive hat trick -- giving him seven goals in the first two games of the season. He's off to the best start of his career heading into Monday's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. How much of that increased sauce can be attributed to his favorite, well, sauce?

"[Mamma Lucia's] is probably where everyone used to eat," says New York Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who played with Ovechkin for part of last season. "Ovi, being one of those original guys, still gets it delivered in. I dabbled in it one day, but it's a little too heavy for me."

When Ovechkin joined the Capitals, in 2005, he and eight or nine other players were in on the order. Now, although winger T.J. Oshie often mooches off the bread and sauce, only fellow Russians Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov regularly order with Ovechkin, whose pregame meal choice never varies.

"Hockey changes, everyone changes. Now everybody eats the healthy food," says Kuznetsov. "But with this, [Ovechkin] keeps it the same."

Ovechkin's training and weight were scrutinized during the offseason, as Washington waded through what Capitals GM Brian MacLellan called "the same kind of hangover" champions endure -- without actually winning a championship. Some wondered if the younger, faster game was catching up with the Caps' captain. For the second-consecutive season, Washington had won the Presidents' Trophy as the best regular-season team in the NHL before flaming out against their Metropolitan Division rivals. The Capitals haven't gotten past the second round since 1998.

So Washington made significant changes this offseason. The Caps lost defensemen Karl Alzner and Shattenkirk, and right winger Justin Williams, in free agency, and they traded away forward Marcus Johansson in a salary-cap crunch.

Ovechkin, who turned 32 in September and is now in his 13th NHL season, made changes too.

"I'm getting older, obviously," Ovechkin told ESPN.com during training camp. "The only thing I'm missing is a Stanley Cup. That's why I try to work hard in the summer with the same passion and the same energy. The game has changed pretty quick. Different speed, different referees, different rules, obviously. So you have to manage the game in a different way. It's faster, yeah. Obviously, young kids coming."

Ovechkin's 33 goals last season were his fewest in a non-lockout season since 2010-11, and Capitals coach Barry Trotz shaved Ovechkin's ice time to a career-low average of 18:22 to preserve him for the playoffs. By the end of the Pittsburgh series, Trotz had moved him down to the third line, and Ovechkin finished the playoffs with five goals and three assists in 13 games as he battled knee and hamstring injuries.

After Washington was eliminated, management publicly challenged the face of the franchise. "I think [Ovechkin is] going to have to think of ways he can evolve into a player that still has a major impact on the game," MacLellan told reporters in May.

Ovechkin took to heart the challenge to train differently and add more speed to his game. "I started working out a little earlier, working out in the morning," he says. "I was running more. I was not lifting weights. I'm a pretty heavy guy. I don't think I need to be more stronger."

Ovechkin was listed at 239 pounds last year, and he reported lighter to training camp, although his weight tends to fluctuate. Regardless, Kuznetsov says, "He looks leaner."

Another big change: Ovechkin got married over the summer -- and obviously felt comfortable enough in his own skin to dance shirtless to Boney M's "Rasputin" at his wedding reception. ("I'm hopefully only getting married once," he says. "So had to have fun with family and friends.")

Now, despite his blistering start, the onus will still be on the greatest goal scorer of his generation to prove that he won't shrink come playoff time.

"I never grasped how much pressure he has until I played with him," Shattenkirk says. "That responsibility can probably wear on you, but he did it every day and did it with a smile. He's this big, lumbering guy, but the way he carries himself always makes guys smile."

For the first time in a decade, Ovechkin is not starting on a line with Nicklas Backstrom.

"Obviously, me and [Backstrom] have a great connection, but the team has changed," Ovechkin says. "We have four great centermen. We see how Kuzy can affect every level of the game."

Indeed, playing alongside the speedy Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana has seemingly opened up the ice for Ovechkin. Kuznetsov has assisted on all seven of Ovechkin's goals, and Vrana has helped on three of them. Ovechkin has already notched six even-strength goals, nearly halfway to last season's total after just two games.

"You can see maybe he's more hungry," Kuznetsov said after Ovechkin's second hat trick. "I can see this in his eyes."

Ovi is hungry for Mamma Lucia's, more goals and, most important, a championship. When asked during training camp how long he plans to keep playing, Ovechkin offered this: "I still have lots of time to set up my legacy and how I want to be remembered. I still have time to make history. I'm 32 only. [For] a couple more years, I am going to be at a high level. You never know when your career is going to be done or what's going to happen in the future. But I need to win a Stanley Cup."

Whether his offseason changes will help him reach that goal this season remains to be seen. There is one thing he won't change: his pregame meal.

"Some people love it, some people don't," Ovechkin says of his carb-heavy but clearly effective fare. "But for me, it is always the same."