It's springtime in Washington, D.C., where the streets are bustling once again with men in loosened ties and suit jackets draped over their forearms. Women have traded in earth tones for bright colors and begun to exercise their right to bare arms on the wide walkways of the capital, which are now crowded with outdoor cafés and lively conversation. With its white stone architecture gleaming under a cloudless sky and the cherry blossoms bursting forth, the city feels refreshed. Last week Congress even agreed on something, an accord to end the furloughs for air-traffic controllers. The Nationals are just 2½ games back in the NL East. Bryce Harper is batting .360. The Capitals are in the playoffs, against the long odds set by their dreadful start, a new coach and a short season. And their superstar, Alex Ovechkin, is in love.
It began in September of 2011, when Ovechkin was in New York City on a preseason press junket for the NHL's biggest stars. After his interviews and promo shoots were done, he was invited to go to the U.S. Open. Having never been to a tennis match, Ovechkin went to Flushing Meadow on a lark. "Destiny," he said last week through his signature gap-toothed smile at Washington's practice facility in Arlington, Va. "I believe in destiny."
Ovechkin wandered over to a practice court where Maria Kirilenko was warming up with her doubles partner, Nadia Petrova. They were fellow Russians, so Ovechkin struck up an easy conversation. He insists he wasn't nervous about approaching the blonde beauty, but Kirilenko thinks he was, a little. "When are you guys playing?" he finally asked.
And so Ovechkin sat in the grandstand at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and watched the women's doubles semifinal. (Kirilenko and Petrova lost to Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova 6--7, 6--2, 3--6.) He and Kirilenko exchanged numbers, untroubled by the inconvenience of living thousands of miles and an ocean apart—he in D.C., she in Moscow.
May 6, 2013
"Our connection was over the phone, over Skype," Kirilenko said last Thursday in Russian through SI reporter Anastassia Smorodinskaya. "For a long time we didn't actually see each other, but even with the distance between us, it felt like we had known each other for a long time."
The long-distance love affair has helped the 27-year-old Capitals captain change his old ways. "I don't think [the relationship] changed my personality, but it's changed my lifestyle," he says. "No more crazy stuff like I did in the summers."
What kind of crazy stuff?
"You don't want to know," he says with a smile. It's the same grin captured in photographs taken during the 2010 offseason, when the two-time Hart Trophy winner was snapped at a bikini- and beer-fueled party on a yacht in Turkey. A year later the hockey world debated whether the paunch he sported in a July interview for the team website was a video illusion or a beer gut. But this past summer, the pictures were different. The most embarrassing shots of Ovechkin were the PG-rated selfies he and Kirilenko posted to Twitter from the London Olympics, where she, with Petrova, won a bronze medal in women's doubles.
"I don't want to do [the crazy stuff] because I know she's going to be not happy about it," Ovechkin says. "Now I know if I'm going to do something stupid, she's going to find out, and it's going to be over. And I don't want that."
Ovechkin proposed to Kirilenko on New Year's Eve while he was playing for Dynamo Moscow in the KHL. They have yet to set a date for the wedding, but since the NHL began its lockout-shortened, 48-game season in January, Kirilenko has spent much of her time between tournaments cheering on her beau in Washington. "I feel he's always looking at me, at where I'm sitting," she says. "So we're connected like that, and I'm certain that it helps him."
After putting up relatively modest numbers in each of the last two seasons—in Ovechkin's case, 32 and 38 qualify as modest goal totals—the Great Eight exploded in the second half of this season, scoring 23 goals in his last 23 games and earning his third Rocket Richard Trophy with an NHL-best 32 goals. His resurgence ignited the Capitals, who won the Southeast Division despite being in last place in the East as recently as March 2. Ovechkin's revival has, of course, been fostered by his trusting relationship with first-year coach Adam Oates, who took over after Dale Hunter stepped down last summer and who stunned the league (and Ovechkin) by moving his star from the left wing to the right in training camp. But some within the organization also point to the positive influence Kirilenko has had.
"Your priorities kind of line up a lot easier [after you've settled down]," center Matt Hendricks says. "You don't find yourself saying, All right, what am I going to do today? Where am I going to go tonight? You get into a routine, and I think [Ovechkin] has that. I think he's happy and he's playing well and all these things have been coming together for him."
General manager George McPhee is sitting in a large conference room in the Capitals' offices atop the Ballston Common Mall in Arlington. Leaning back in a chair with his arms crossed, he slow-blinks as he shakes his head. A shrewd hockey mind, McPhee sees cause and effect play out within the confines of a rink. "I mean, you never know," he says when asked if Ovechkin's improved play has anything to do with love. "But the real [cause of his] transformation has been the coach and the change of position."
When Oates interviewed for the Washington job, the Hall of Fame center—his 1,079 assists rank sixth alltime—had a plan: He wanted to shift Ovechkin from his usual spot at left wing to the right. "Adam was convinced he could make [Ovechkin] a better player," McPhee says. "And he had the evidence to back it up. He had done it with a couple of other players."
As an assistant with the Lightning in 2009, Oates helped left wing Martin St. Louis move to the right side, and St. Louis has thrived, finishing second in points in '10--11 and scoring a league-best 60 this season at age 37. Last year, as an assistant with the Devils, Oates also engineered leftwinger Ilya Kovalchuk's move to the right, which spurred the Russian sniper to score 37 goals and helped New Jersey reach the Stanley Cup finals.
As Oates explains it, the move was about increasing the righthanded Ovechkin's touches. "I wanted my best player to have the puck more," Oates says. "And I felt playing on his off side, there's only so many times he can get the puck. I thought on the other side, I could double the opportunities he could get touching the puck."
From the right Ovechkin can take passes on his forehand and handle pucks along the boards more easily. Playing on the left, he often had to corkscrew his body to the right in order to receive a pass or to shoot. Coming out of the Capitals' zone, his body is in better position to make the rush up the ice.
Ovechkin understood hockey almost exclusively through the lens of a leftwinger; a move from left to right wouldn't be simple or smooth. With just six days of training camp to acclimate, he was wary of the change. "I was not really [thinking] it was going to work," Ovechkin says. "I was not that happy about it because I played my entire life on the left side."
Three games into the season Ovechkin had no goals and just one assist and looked uncomfortable. He asked Oates to move him back to the left. The coach did so without question, but he continued to show his star game tape while explaining how a move to the right could work. About a week later, Ovechkin asked if he could make the move in baby steps, alternating a shift on the left and then a shift on the right, like a swimmer easing into cold, unfamiliar waters. "You're talking someone who has had unlimited success over there [into moving to the other side]," Oates says. "It was going to have to be his idea. I presented it to him, but it was still going to be [him saying] yes or no."
Handedness wasn't the only reason the move made sense; the biggest impetus for change was Ovechkin's predictability on the ice. When he broke into the NHL in 2005, he was able to carry the puck from blue line to blue line down the left side, then cut to the middle and shoot for the corners of the net. But the league's defensemen picked up on the pattern and began to take away his time and space in the neutral zone while blocking his favorite skating lanes to create turnovers. Says McPhee, "The league had figured [him] out."
Oates wanted to diversify Ovechkin's game by giving him different looks at the net. He still scores the majority of his goals from the left side: 16 of his 32 this season came on the power play, when he hovers around the left circle looking for one-timers. But he has scored in more ways than he used to—tips, deflections, even sweeping backhanders. Down 1--0 midway through the third period against the Senators last Thursday, Ovechkin picked up the puck near the right half-wall after Ottawa blueliner Chris Phillips whiffed on a chance to clear his zone. With a step on the defenseman, Ovechkin drove to the net, and the air in the Verizon Center filled with anticipation. "When he has the puck on his stick, everybody on the bench starts to stand up again," Hendricks says. "His confidence, his swagger is back."
Ovechkin muscled through and backhanded the puck into the net, sending the crowd into frenzied chants of "MVP!" In the old days, he might have pulled up at the face-off circle, but this time he had powered his way through the slot to the front of the crease. "The way he can score makes him so dangerous," Ottawa coach Paul MacLean says. "They do a nice job of hiding him and sliding him and moving him around. It's a very complex thing to get organized against."
It is easy to see the goals and declare the old Ovechkin is back, but to those who know his game best he's a new man. "This guy is better than he's ever been," McPhee says. "Better than when he scored 65 [in 2007--08]. Better than he was in his Calder season. Because he is a more complete player."
Ovechkin isn't exactly a candidate for the Selke trophy as the league's best defensive forward, but McPhee sees a better all-around player who learned to commit at both ends of the ice under Hunter, who became coach last season when Bruce Boudreau was fired in November 2011. Under Boudreau's freewheeling system, Ovechkin was barely asked to enter the defensive zone. Hunter installed a system that emphasized goal prevention over goal scoring, and insisted that even his biggest offensive star play with the defensive grit of a third-liner. Ovechkin admits now that absorbing those lessons was hard. Hunter slashed his minutes because he felt Ovechkin was a defensive liability, and the two men never seemed to develop a deep trust in each other (against the Rangers in Game 2 of the second playoff round last year, Ovechkin played just 13:36). "He wants to be that marquee guy that's playing in important situations," Hendricks says. "Now, he is."
In Oates the Capitals have an effective communicator, a hockey scholar and an on-ice legend, someone who can relate to Ovechkin's life under the microscope. "Adam's sort of the perfect guy to pull it all together," McPhee says.
For three years as a center for the Blues, Oates rode shotgun with one of the greatest scorers of his generation, Brett Hull. And now, Oates is setting up this generation's best.
Is it destiny? Alex Ovechkin certainly believes in that.
"I feel he's always looking at me, at where I'm sitting," says Kirilenko of watching Ovechkin play. "And I'm certain that it helps him."
Ovechkin's righthandedness wasn't the only reason the move to right wing made sense; there was also his increasing predictability on the ice.
THE MAXIMS OF SPRING
Some tenets of the NHL playoffs hold water, but others should be put on ice By Brian Cazenueve
YOU NEED A SUPERSTAR GOALIE TO WIN
From 1946 through '90, every Stanley Cup champion had a future Hall of Fame netminder on the roster. Since then, Tom Barrasso ('91 and '92 Penguins) and Mike Richter ('94 Rangers) both helped their teams win championships but are not in the Hall. Active Cup-winning goaltenders such as Nikolai Khabibulin, Cam Ward, Antti Niemi, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jonathan Quick (below) may not be enshrined either.
THE MAXIMS OF SPRING
AN UNEXPECTED HERO MUST EMERGE
Over the last 30 years some of the most memorable postseason goals have been scored by Ken Morrow, Stephane Matteau, Petr Klima, Ruslan Fedotenko, Jason Arnott and Nathan Horton. They may be good players, but only Arnott has a chance of making the Hall of Fame. The tight checking in the playoffs magnifies the importance of opportunism, which is good news for smart, less heralded players capable of raising their games such as Bruins center Chris Kelly (below), Penguins left wing Jussi Jokinen, Blackhawks right wing Viktor Stalberg or Ducks center Andrew Cogliano. Any of them could be the hero of 2013.
THE MAXIMS OF SPRING
HOME-ICE ADVANTAGE IS HUGE
Tell that to the Kings, whose postseason road win streak reached 10 games last spring. They aren't alone. It takes 16 victories to win a Stanley Cup, and twice during the Martin Brodeur era (1995 and 2000), the Devils got 10 of them on the road. That's what makes John Tavares (below) and the Islanders dangerous, even as a No. 8 seed. Since '06, road teams are 14--14 in seventh games, and clubs have closed out 56 of 105 series on the road. As buildings have become standardized, the advantages of playing at home have diminished.
THE MAXIMS OF SPRING
BEWARE THE BOTTOM FEEDERS
There is plenty of parity in the NHL's playoffs, with four teams winning their franchise's first Stanley Cups in the past nine years. Since 1994, when the Sharks, playing in their first postseason series, beat the Red Wings, who were consensus Stanley Cup favorites, No. 8 seeds have beaten No. 1 seeds on 10 occasions. Teams that limp into April have shown they can recover their balance pretty quickly. In 2010, for example, the Flyers reached the playoffs on the final play of the regular season, winning a shootout against the Rangers to qualify as a seventh seed, then went on to beat the No. 8 Canadiens in the Eastern finals.
By comparison, only four times in the NBA playoffs has a No. 8 seed beaten a No. 1, and two of those occurred in five-game series.
Given those facts, the Penguins and the Blackhawks, the top seeds in their respective conferences, should keep in mind that teams like the Rangers (a No. 6 seed) and the Red Wings (a No. 7) underperformed for much of the season and are capable of much more next week. Pavel Datsyuk (below) and the veteran Wings went to the finals in 2008 and '09; New York was just two points away from winning the Presidents' Trophy a year ago.
For more on the NHL playoffs, including series previews from Sarah Kwak and video capsules on each first-round matchup from Brian Cazeneuve, check out SI.com/mag