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Capital improvement traces to Ovechkin

When he took over as the new coach of the Washington Capitals 20 months ago, Job No. 1 for Barry Trotz was to get through to Alexander Ovechkin. And long before the next season started.

Trotz made sure Ovechkin understood he couldn’t be hanging in the neutral zone looking for cheap goals. Sure, the Great Eight was a superstar, but if he ever wanted to win in the NHL it was going to take a full commitment at both ends of the ice.

Two years ago, Ovechkin scored 51 goals but what good did it do? The Capitals missed the playoffs and Ovechkin had a ghastly minus-35 rating.

Yes, the era of analytics has shed plenty of light on the vagaries of plus-minus. But minus-35 is still minus-35. Especially when you consider Ovechkin turned that around to plus-10 last year and entered Saturday at plus-21 this season.

Trotz was Ovechkin’s fourth coach in four years. And Ovechkin was sure looking like nothing more than a numbers guy who was a coach killer. Trotz met him at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas and told him his 50 goals meant nothing with that kind of rating.

This time, Ovechkin listened.

“He’s really an honest guy. Perception was he was hard to coach but he’s extremely easy to coach,” Trotz said Saturday in First Niagara Center. “He’s an all-in guy. He’s not selfish in any way. He’s actually the opposite. You can tell when we score. It doesn’t have to be him scoring.”

“We’re playing the kind of hockey the coach wants,” Ovechkin said. “Everybody knows their role and is doing what they have to do for us to have success. It’s a mentality we have and it’s a pretty good atmosphere for us. With this group of guys, it’s been a long time since we’ve had that kind of relationship and atmosphere in the locker room.”

Ovechkin entered the game with 26 goals, two shy of Patrick Kane’s league lead, but was actually third on his team in scoring with 39 points as Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov were both at 41.

“If someone scores on our team, he’s just as happy,” Trotz said. “He takes a lot of pride in how he plays and being a representative of not only the Washington Capitals but also the Russian hockey player in general. … He’s been nothing but a pleasure to work with and his game has been so impressive since I’ve been here.”

Now, the Caps were far from impressive Saturday night as the Sabres earned full marks for a 4-1 victory over a Washington team that hit town 33-7-3 and first overall in the NHL.

But the game seemed to be a blip on the season for Ovechkin & Co. They had been riding a 14-1-1 wave and the euphoria of Ovechkin’s 500th career goal, scored last Sunday night against Ottawa.

By reaching the milestone in his 801st NHL game, Ovechkin became the fifth-fastest player in history to 500. He trails only a Mount Rushmore of Hall of Fame goal scorers named Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy and Brett Hull.

“It was pretty cool,” said Backstrom, Ovechkin’s center. “You know 500 is big, then you look at the list of the players who have done it faster than him. That’s pretty impressive. And I’m most happy he did it at home, got the ovations. He deserves it, all of it. He’s such a special player for this franchise.”

“It was a great feeling. I’m going to remember that for all my life,” Ovechkin said. “My dad was there, my mom was there. That was the most important thing.”

T.J. Oshie came from St. Louis and admitted that, like Trotz, he heard plenty of chatter about what Ovechkin might be like. Then he landed at right wing on his line. Preconceived notions gone.

“You learn how much he cares about the team and how good of a leader he is,” Oshie said. “You really don’t see how much he wants everyone to score and play the right way. From afar, coming in here you might think just, ‘This guy shoots 20 times a night and wants to score.’ But it’s not that. He wants to win games. That’s such a good thing to have in a player as special as he is.

“With how fast he reached 500, how consistent he scores goals is really amazing,” Oshie added. “You’d think some team, some coach would find the key to success against him. But when he turns it up a notch, it’s only a matter of time until the puck goes in.”

Still, for all his wondrous accomplishments, Ovechkin’s career is certainly tainted by his postseason failures. Forget about pointing out he’s yet to win a Stanley Cup, Ovechkin hasn’t even made a Stanley Cup final.

And actually, forget about the Cup final. Ovechkin hasn’t even made an Eastern Conference final. Not one time in 10 years. He’s lost in Game Seven of the first or second round six times, including three in a row over the last four years to the New York Rangers.

Remember all that talk here last year about your generational player guaranteeing you silver some day? It’s not easy. So many people talk about the failures in Edmonton but it’s easy to overlook Washington has never gotten close with Ovechkin.

This is the year it looks like that could change. The Caps have been playing and winning without Brooks Orpik and John Carlson on defense. They have balance. Braden Holtby has been the league’s best goalie, even as his 20-0-2 streak went by the wayside Saturday. There’s no reason for them to not be playing deep into June this time.

“My expectation goes day by day,” Ovechkin said. “If we have a slump, we have to bounce back and get in the same position. Our main goal is not being good in the season. It’s to get ready for the playoffs, this time be very good in the playoffs.”