ARLINGTON, Va. -- A day before the Capitals were to open the postseason, Alex Ovechkin was at the head of the class.
Kneeling on the ice, the Russian sniper was in front of the scrum of teammates at practice watching a play being diagramed on a board attached to the glass. Under previous regimes, Ovechkin lingered on the fringe. No more.
Now 27, Ovechkin always could shoot with the best on the planet. But under coach Adam Oates, the Hall of Fame center who has opened the lines of communication, Ovechkin has morphed into a better all-around player. "He just wants to win, I want to win," Ovechkin said Wednesday. "We have a lot of chats. It's been great. He's always teaching. He knows how to play; he tells me how to be open, how to find space, how to find rebounds."
Ovechkin struggled early, with five goals in 16 games. After a hat trick against the Devils, he had one goal in the next eight and became the poster boy for the Capitals' first-half tailspin.
"When big guys struggle, like [Brad] Richards and [Rick] Nash, when they're not scoring, it's more highlighted," Capitals forward Jason Chimera said. "People are all over them and when they start, people are like, 'Finally.' He wasn't playing bad, it just wasn't going in for him, and your confidence slips a bit. But he's playing the best overall game I've ever seen him play."
In fact, Ovechkin finished with a roar, leading the NHL with 32 goals, including 14 in 14 games in April, to help lift Washington to the No. 3 seed in the East.
"It's a little confidence," Oates said. "I think getting the touches has allowed that to happen. I think the power play being successful has allowed that to happen for all our top dogs."
Credit Oates, who strives "to give players the feeling that they can reach out and ask me something. That's what I wanted [as a player]. If I'm not happy with a guy, I don't have to yell at him to let him know. I can talk to him. He's still a pro; you've got to be a pro. It's a different game."
Oates moved Ovechkin from left wing to the right side, and No. 8 listened and learned. "He really understands the system," said defenseman Mike Green, "and he's thrived off it." Oates, said Green, "can teach you little tricks."
Oates was the ultimate playmaker with more than 1,000 assists, including hundreds to Brett Hull, with whom he remains friends. "He sees himself in Ovie," Oates said. "Do I? Absolutely. Goal-scorers have a unique thing about them . . . They come to the rink expecting to score, it's a part of their life; I knew that when I played with him [Hull] and that's part of Ovie's life, he is expected to score by everybody. Yeah, he gets paid for it, but it's still a lot of pressure to go out there and do it, and there's nights when it's very difficult."
Ovechkin's personal life also has settled in. In December, Ovechkin announced that he and tennis star Maria Kirilenko were engaged. "It's a good feeling," he said. "You can't do what you want anymore. When you have a girl with a tennis racket, she can hit you."
Now it's Ovechkin who's been hitting: Nothing but net.