For the sixth time in his NHL career, Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin has reached the 50-goal plateau. He became only the sixth NHL player to reach that milestone, joining Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne.

At 29, it’s possible Ovechkin could reach or break the all-time record of 50-goal seasons (nine) held by Gretzky and Bossy. Considering how much scoring in the NHL has declined in recent years, Ovechkin’s achievement is all the more impressive.

Alexander Ovechkin has silenced his critics this season.

Alexander Ovechkin has silenced his critics this season.

It wasn’t that long ago, however, when some observers were wondering if Ovechkin would ever reach another 50-goal season again.

In Ovechkin’s first five NHL seasons he was an offensive machine, reaching the 50-goal mark four times (including a career-best 65-goal effort in 2007-08). During that period, he won the Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goalscorer twice, the Art Ross as the leading scorer in 2008, and the Hart Trophy as league MVP twice.

But in 2010-11 and 2011-12, Ovechkin’s offensive production significantly declined. Critics pounced, questioning his desire and suggesting he was putting his own interests over those of the team. The real reason was the Capitals changed their style, first under coach Bruce Boudreau and then under Dale Hunter, from a run-and-gun offense to a system focused upon defensive play.

Ovechkin rebounded during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, earning his third Richard and Hart trophies. That did little to silence his critics, especially after the Capitals were bounced from the opening round of the 2013 playoffs by the New York Rangers. The following season, Ovechkin reached the the 50-goal mark for the first time in four years and won his fourth Richard Trophy, but the Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

Despite the improvement in Ovechkin’s offensive numbers, he bore the brunt of the blame for the Capitals steady decline since 2010. He was labeled a “coach killer.” There were calls to strip him of the captaincy and even suggestions the Capitals put him on the trade block.

This season, however, has brought about a change. The Capitals cleaned house last summer in the front office and especially behind the bench, bringing in former Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz. They also bolstered their defense with free-agent signings Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. On the ice, the Caps appear certain to reach the playoffs. As of April 1, they gave up the tenth-fewest shots-against per game, were sixth in goals-per-game and fifth in goals-against, possessed the top power play and were 12th in penalty killing.

Over the course of this season, Ovechkin has received more praise for his performance than criticism, particularly for his leadership and two-way game.

So what’s behind Ovechkin’s improvement? The easy answer, of course, is the well-respected Trotz. He got Ovechkin to buy into his system, but just as importantly, Ovechkin wanted to buy in. The Capitals captain obviously thinks as highly of Trotz as the coach thinks of his captain. The pair have a mutual respect which makes working together much easier.

Maturity could also be behind the improvement in Ovechkin’s overall game. He turns 30 this fall and has ten NHL seasons under his belt. For all his individual awards, Ovechkin has never won a Stanley Cup. He’s  reached the stage in his career when he probably realizes he’s at the midpoint of his NHL career. Though the end of that career could be another eight, 10 or 12 years away, time is starting to become a factor.

Ovechkin may be realizing it’s time to make changes to his overall performance to improve his chances, and that of the Capitals, to win that elusive championship. It took finding the right coach, one who Ovechkin respected, to help him find that style.

It won’t be easy for the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup this season. They still lack scoring depth beyond Ovechkin’s line, still need a proven second-line center as well as some additional checking-line experience. However, the Capitals improvement this season suggests this is a team which could be on the upswing, led by a captain whose game is no longer as one-dimensional as his critics once claimed.

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