GLENDALE, Ariz. — Alex Ovechkin is coming to town. That’s all you should need to entice you to Jobing.com Arena when the Coyotes host the Capitals on Saturday.
The Russian star’s combination of size (6-foot-3, 230 pounds), power and eye-popping skill are always worth the price of admission, and this is his first visit to the Valley in nearly three years (Feb. 14, 2011).
But making this matchup even more enticing is the fact that Ovechkin is on a mad tear. He has seven goals in his last seven games and scored a pair of power-play goals in the Caps’ 6-2 win over the Islanders on Tuesday. Washington has won four straight games.
Maybe it’s the fact that he’s entering his prime at age 28, or maybe second-year coach Adam Oates just suits him, but in his last 62 games, Ovechkin has 45 goals and 75 points.
Oates shifted him from the left wing to the right wing (he still mans the left side on the power play), and the results have been incredible.
“He shoots the puck so quickly and so hard. He can get shots away where other guys would be fumbling with it,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “Wherever he gets the puck, he’s dangerous shooting.”
Ovechkin leads the Capitals in goals this season with 13 and is sixth in the league in points with 19. Former teammate Mike Ribeiro, now with the Coyotes, is convinced that Oates has made a major impact on Ovechkin’s game.
“Adam is easy to talk to, and if you work hard, he’s going to give you leverage to do what you can do,” said Ribeiro, who played for the Caps last season. “Adam’s not stressed out about what he’s doing out there, so Adam’s a good fit for him.”
Ribeiro said the biggest difference he’s seen in Ovechkin’s game is his play away from the puck.
“He’s one of the only players who can create scoring chances every shift, every time he touches the puck,” Ribeiro said. “But I think he had to learn how to play without the puck, and that’s the hardest thing for every player.”
Whatever Ovechkin’s reputation might be in various circles, Riberio said he was always easy to be around.
“He was actually a pretty down-to-earth person. That was his best quality — just a normal guy,” Ribeiro said. “But obviously, out on the ice, he’s different. He’s a terror.”
Washington enters Saturday’s game with the league’s top-ranked power play, which is clicking at an impressive 28.1 percent with 18 goals in 64 chances. The Caps have five power-play goals in their last nine chances.
“It’s a very basic power play that’s just executed real well,” said Coyotes center and penalty killer Jeff Halpern, who began his career with the Capitals. “They have three real good one-timers in the spots that you want ’em, and they have two great setup guys on the one side feeding those guys.”
Halpern said it’s easy to draw up what the Caps do; “it’s just how well those players execute it.”
With that in mind, Tippett was harping on something that bothered him in Thursday’s loss in Anaheim.
“We’ve taken penalties that have come back to bite us,” he said. “There’s two sides: Don’t take the penalty or get it killed. Those are areas where we could certainly see improvement.”
The Coyotes’ penalty-killing unit is ranked 23rd in the league, killing off 78.8 percent of opponents’ chances.
MIKE SMITH’S MASK
Goalie Mike Smith should be receiving his new mask soon, but the photos have already surfaced thanks to artist David Arrigo.
Smith debuted a Wile E. Coyote-themed mask designed by Arrigo last season. He thought about changing it, but Arrigo convinced him that the Coyote is his calling card.
This year’s mask features Smith’s sons, Aksel and Ajax, riding an Acme rocket that orbits the mask and ends up on top. But Smith added a personal touch this time by taking home a plain backplate (the portion of the mask that rests on the back of the head) and allowing 2-year-old Aksel to paint his own design on it.
When Smith told Aksel he’s have a hand in the design, his son’s eyes lit up.
“He was stoked,” Smith said. “He was like, ‘Oh yeah, I paint daddy’s helmet!'”
The mask also will feature hand prints from both sons.
Tippett said Halpern and defenseman David Schlemko are ready to return to the lineup against the Capitals, but forward Radim Vrbata (lower body) and defenseman Derek Morris (lower body) will be game-time decisions.
Both players skated Friday but left practice early. Tippett wants to re-assess them after Saturday’s morning skate.
Vrbata appeared to injure something in his right leg while pursuing a puck in the corner midway through the second period Wednesday in Anaheim. There was no contact on the play, but as he skated around the net, he lifted his right leg in pain and immediately skated to the bench.
Halpern’s return will help stabilize the fourth line, shifting Kyle Chipchura back to the wing. Halpern is also a valuable penalty killer, which will be needed against the Caps.
Ribeiro on his one year (last season) in Washington: “It was a nice experience to see D.C. and live there for a year, but I was excited to come here and get up with the sun every morning.”