'Old man' Alex Ovechkin is still learning new tricks

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

Amid all the cathartic carousing that Alex Ovechkin did after finally leading the Washington Capitals to a Stanley Cup was this undeniable fact: that time marches on steadily (or at least steadier than anyone marched in that gloriously festive victory parade in June).

Ovechkin would become a father in August. Ovechkin would turn 33 years old in September. Ovechkin would enter his 14th NHL season having played 1,003 regular-season games and 121 more in the postseason.

The great players are cognizant of this fact. They're aware of the work that has to go into maintaining a level of excellence. They understand that their games have to constantly improve, change and modulate in ways that keep them from becoming a nostalgia act opening for the next generation of stars.

Ovechkin is a great player, and this season he has been anything but a superstar resting on his accomplishments (which include an appearance on ESPN The Magazine's Dominant 20 list).

In fact, there hasn't been much rest at all for Ovechkin.

"I feel pretty good," Ovechkin said recently about his ice time, which is up nearly a minute per game on average (21:02 through 29 games) over last season. "When you're in a game, when you have lots of ice time, you feel much better. You can ask anybody. You'd rather have 20 minutes a night than 10 minutes."

The increase in ice time has been partially out of necessity, as the Capitals saw injuries (Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie) and suspensions (Tom Wilson) to their top six forwards in the first two months of the season. But it's also indicative of Ovechkin's durability, as the Russian Machine hasn't played fewer than 78 games in a full season since 2009-10. (In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he played all 48 games.)

"Some nights it drops a little bit," Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. "Sometimes the games don't play out that way. Some other games, he's going really well, and I want to get him back out there. When he's playing more often and engaged, he does a better job."

Few can do the job like Ovechkin when it comes to offensive output. He has 22 goals in 29 games, which leads the NHL. His 36 points have him tied for ninth overall, a total fueled by an 11-game point streak that saw the Capitals win nine of them.

That's what we expect from Ovechkin. Reirden, who took over the team after Barry Trotz resigned last summer, expected more. So he put Ovechkin back into a role he was counted on to play in his younger days: on the ice when the opposing net is empty, playing defense but also eyeing the chance for a back-breaking goal the other way.

In 82 games last season, Ovechkin had three empty-netters. He has three already this season.

"The last couple of years, I didn't have some opportunities to play [five-on-six]," Ovechkin said. "We have the guys that can be in that position. You use your opportunity. If you have the chance, you use it."

Reirden said it's about having a star player earn his possibilities just like everyone else.

"I know in recent years, he wasn't used in many five-on-six situations," said Reirden, whose team has given up only one goal at five-on-six this season. "I'm putting him in those situations at the end of games when we're ahead, getting him a few extra minutes, which had not been the case. Putting more defensive responsibility on him.

He's earned his opportunities to be out there when the other teams pulled their goalie. To me, it comes back to opportunity [for all players]. It's not just opportunities for young guys."

Those young guys do get their chances in the NHL, and they're burying them with frequency.

Of the five players right behind Ovechkin in the goal-scoring race, four of them are 23 years old or younger. (The other one, Jeff Skinner of the Buffalo Sabres, is 26.) The top seven point scorers in the NHL are 25 and younger.

Perhaps the youth movement is part of the motivation for Ovechkin, one season after finally slaying the dragon or kicking the monkey off his back or, really, whichever cliché one wants to apply to finally hoisting that trophy above his head for the first time.

He looks over at a player such as Patrik Laine, scoring the same laserlike goals he scores; or at Connor McDavid, redefining the speed with which one plays offensively in this league; or Auston Matthews, whose goals-per-games-played ratio is astonishing. He knows there are a dozen young hands trying to grab his Rocket Richard Trophy away. He's clutching it tighter.

"I'm impressed, obviously. They do a very good job, all of those guys. That's why I have to be in shape," Ovechkin said, exhaling after practice on Monday. "Those guys can catch you anytime."

The Capitals are atop the Metropolitan Division with 37 points, meaning that it's another typical regular season for a franchise with eight division titles since 2008. They're churning along with a coach who was on the bench last season as an assistant. It's pretty much the same roster, too. No massive fall-off from the Cup win.

"I think it feels the same, really. Whether that's good or bad, it feels the same," defenseman John Carlson said.

In some ways, Ovechkin is the same, too. In other ways, he's not. He's older. Perhaps a bit wiser. Perhaps a bit more confident, if that were possible. A bit more determined, if that were also possible.

"He came into camp in remarkable shape," Reirden said. "Lighter than he's ever been. He's come ready to play and perform. He loves the games. He's a very competitive guy. He's been in a good rhythm. For me, it's some of the best distributing of the puck I've seen him do. And his goal-scoring is right at the top, where it always is. His game continues to round out."

Reirden paused for a moment of contemplation. "It's crazy when you say that about someone that's played in the league for this long, but there are still changes going on in his game," he said. "That's exciting, and a bunch of fun to work with as a coach."

Even at 33 years old, and even after the greatest accomplishment of his life as a hockey player, the Russian Machine is a transformer.