The ‘but’ stops here: Ovechkin’s 14-year Cup chase is over
LAS VEGAS — Alex Ovechkin is a Stanley Cup champion. The ‘but’ is dead.
He’s no longer Dan Marino. Or Ted Williams. Or Karl Malone. He is a star player whose statistical achievements — 607 goals, putting him 19th all time at 32 years old — will never again be counterbalanced by the lack of a championship.
This isn’t to say he ever needed his name on the Cup to validate his status as a generational talent or to punch his ticket for eventual hockey immortality, no matter what his detractors might have claimed. But “Alex Ovechkin is a Stanley Cup champion” is a phrase that repels a decade of criticism about his desire, his effectiveness and his leadership in the postseason. Every unfair maligning of his effort. Every “choker” label that was applied to him. They all vanished into rapture the moment he laid hands on hockey’s holy grail.
“I just wanted to do whatever I can to help win the Cup. And we did it,” said Ovechkin, his voice hoarse from screaming, standing on the Las Vegas ice where he lifted the chalice and accepted the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP.
Ovechkin won the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals, which is one of those sentences that you still can’t believe can be written in a work of nonfiction, because it’s something many Capitals fans were convinced they’d never see. The irony of winning in a year when there were no expectations that they could win is one of the hockey gods’ most glib jokes.
It took him 24 games this postseason, 121 playoff games overall and 1,003 regular-season games. It’s the culmination of a 14-year journey through expectations and education, through elation and excruciating heartbreak. He needed every moment to become the player that hoisted the Cup on the ice.
Every single one of them.
Alex Ovechkin is 18 years old
He’s dwarfed by his father, Mikhail, when he enthusiastically leaps to his feet after Capitals general manager George McPhee announces his name as the first overall pick in the 2004 draft in Raleigh, North Carolina. He kisses his mother, Tatyana, an Olympic gold medalist for the Soviets in basketball. Like any mother, she hugs and congratulates her son. Unlike many mothers, she would go on to broker Ovechkin’s massive 13-year, $124-million contract after he fired his agent, becoming the foundation on which the “Rock The Red” revolution for the Capitals would be built.
His face isn’t adorned by a craggily beard. His features are almost porcelain. His English is rough in an interview with TSN, which is fine, because everything you needed to know about Ovechkin at that point would be summarized in the smile and laugh he gives to indicate how joyous he is in that moment, his eyes revealing the vibrancy and spirit that would spark a revival for Washington hockey.
He references how his brother was the one who encouraged him to play hockey with Dynamo Moscow, and the reference just flies by without comment because we didn’t know Ovechkin yet. We didn’t know that his brother, Sergei, died from a blood clot after a car accident when Ovechkin was 10 years old. We didn’t know how this tragedy would shape Ovechkin’s life.
He would play in a game the day following the tragedy because that was what was expected.
“I was on the bench, I was crying. But my shift, my coach said, ‘OK, go play.’ And I played and I was crying. It was hard, but at 10 years old, you obviously [don’t] realize what’s happening,” Ovechkin told Graham Bensinger in 2015. “It was a hard moment for my mom and dad, for all my family because [the] oldest son passed away. It was a hard time.”
His brother’s encouragement led Ovechkin down the path to hockey stardom, becoming one of those hockey prodigies whose lofty draft status was cemented when he was 14 years old. Hearing him described by pundits on the day of his draft is both unintentionally hilarious and a harbinger of things to come:
Brian Burke referred to Ovechkin as a “200-foot player” with considerable defensive prowess, for perhaps the first and last time in that decade.
Pierre McGuire said Ovechkin is the kind of talent that would “lead Washington to the promised land,” although he never mentioned when.
Because nothing ever comes to Capitals fans without a palpable wait, Ovechkin didn’t debut until after the NHL cancelled a season for lockout that resulted in a salary cap. The wait was worth it: Ovechkin was a needle filled with adrenaline stuck straight into the heart of a moribund franchise. He scored 52 goals and 106 points in his rookie season, 29 and 49 more than the team’s second-leading scorer, Dainius Zubrus. The rest of the top five in scoring: Jeff Halpern, Brian Willsie and Chris Clark. So, yeah, this was a promising start for the franchise reset.
He was an instant sensation, and a game-changing player. He had the velocity of a young Jaromir Jagr with a power forward’s brute force and Brett Hull‘s shot. Luc Robitaille told McPhee that Ovechkin was “the best player he’d ever seen.” Please recall that Robitaille was Wayne Gretzky’s teammate in Los Angeles.
The season began with Sidney Crosby seemingly destined to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Ovechkin started the campaign outscoring him in October to win rookie of the month. He ended up beating Crosby for rookie of the year with 124 first-place votes to Crosby’s four.
From the draft through his rookie season, the expectations were there for Ovechkin to skate the Capitals to greatness. But it would be the last thing Ovechkin would take from Crosby for quite some time.
Alex Ovechkin is 24 years old
He’s shaking hands with Crosby, having lost in Game 7 of the 2009 conference semifinals to the Pittsburgh Penguins in what was perhaps the most highly anticipated non-Stanley Cup Final playoff series in the NHL since the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings ended their blood feud. Crosby thanked him for a great series, one in which the two rival stars posted hat tricks in the same game. Ovechkin said he hoped Crosby would win the Stanley Cup, and the Penguins obliged a few weeks later.
It was more than a playoff series. It was a referendum on two franchises, and the two stars that defined them.
They were entitled in very different ways. The Penguins lost in the Stanley Cup Final in the previous season. The Capitals acted like they did, riding a wave of momentum generated by a generation of brash “Young Guns.” Imagine it as a training montage in a movie: The Penguins were studiously preparing, led by their milquetoast captain. The Capitals were riding Segways in their hockey jerseys around D.C. and shot a music video together, with Ovechkin naturally as the lead singer.
Crosby was the good Canadian boy who loved his family and extolled the virtues of traditional hockey greatness through hard work and practice, practice, practice. Ovechkin once gave out his cellphone number on Russian television and said the first woman that called him would get a date. “She said ‘I want to hear your voice and say that I love you,'” he would tell CBC, “I was shocked. It was a cool surprise.”
Ovechkin was a rock star, but sometimes rock stars hit the wrong notes at the wrong time. Like that breakaway he had on Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 7 that Fleury stopped. Which would have changed everything in that game on home ice.
Instead, it was Crosby who posted three points in Game 7 to eliminate the Capitals.
“To the hard-core traditionalists who view most uber-skilled players from overseas as little more than Euro trash, this was about validating their xenophobia. Sidney Crosby, the quiet farm boy from Nova Scotia, won; his Pittsburgh team is going back to the Eastern Conference finals. Ovechkin, the YouTube demigod who once pretended his stick was on fire after a goal, got his just dessert,” wrote Mike Wise in the Washington Post.
This series was the cradle of negative Ovechkin playoff narratives. That his team failed, and he contributed to that failure, only tallying a goal after the Penguins took a 5-1 lead. That the Capitals weren’t made of the stern stuff of playoff successes, and that the palpable anxiety that accompanied every moment of playoff adversity would sink them. That the commitment of champions like the Penguins wasn’t to be found in a franchise more concerned with ostentatious branding and algorithms that attempted to keep opposing fans from buying tickets.
The next postseason, the Capitals’ party ended as abruptly as a high-school rager broken up by approaching police sirens: The Capitals were a 121-point team, eliminated in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens, an 88-point team, in one of the most shocking upsets in NHL playoff history. Another crushing defeat, another addendum to the narrative: The Capitals couldn’t hold a 3-1 series lead, lost another Game 7, and Ovechkin, in his first postseason as captain, couldn’t lead by words or example: He had one assist combined in Games 6 and 7.
Never mind the fact that he had 10 points in the series.
“I don’t know what I have to say right now. It’s a terrible feeling right now,” he said at the time. “You know, it’s hard for me, but for everybody. We know we can win. But we don’t win it.”
Alex Ovechkin is 28 years old
The years following the loss to the Canadiens in 2010 are a heart-shattering stretch of playoff disappointment. The Capitals would lose in the conference semifinals five times, including back-to-back seasons against Crosby and the Penguins, who would win their second and third Stanley Cups by traveling through D.C. They lost in the conference quarterfinals to the Rangers, with Ovechkin having his worst postseason (one goal, one assist in seven games) and then followed that with the lowest moment for the franchise in the Ovechkin era: failing to quality for the playoffs in 2014 and costing McPhee his job.
On April 14, 2014, Ovechkin stood in front of the assembled media. He was frustrated. He was dour. He was asked about being pulled in several directions over the past few seasons, with coaches Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter and Adam Oates all trying to install different systems, all trying to crack the code on this team that couldn’t get over the postseason hump.
“If you’re not going to score goals, then try and do something if you can’t score goals. It’s not about the system. It’s about us,” Ovechkin said.
Then he was asked to evaluate himself. About his play in the postseason. About being a “coach killer.” About the weight of these failures landing on him.
“If you remember when [Dale] Hunter was here, I didn’t score goals. And you guys said, ‘Why didn’t you score goals?’ and I said, ‘My job is to block shots.’ And the whole world said that Ovi stopped doing what he used to do. He’s gone. We’re never going to see him again. And I don’t want to put myself back in this position again. I’m paid to get scores.
“I’m a player. I want to win. We can win if we’re on the same page. But if we’re going to throw each other under the bus, we’re not going to win,” he said.
He said the franchise was “in the middle of nowhere” at that point. He was asked if — with seven years remaining on his contract and his team having reached the nadir of his tenure — he wanted to remain a Capital.
“I’m never going to ask for a trade,” he said. “That’s why I signed the contract. I love this team. I love the fans. I love this city. I want to bring the Cup here.”
Alex Ovechkin is 31 years old
Ovechkin has achieved an incredible list of things as an individual, from three Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Awards to seven goal-scoring titles to one overall scoring title. That he would choose to melt them all down to forge one championship ring in the NHL is widely assumed.
The dream that he’d bring a Stanley Cup to Washington is effectively over. The team had finished a three-year build to a Stanley Cup run, augmented by bold-name additions like Justin Williams and Kevin Shattenkirk, only to see the Penguins defeat them in a Game 7 that felt more like an inevitable loss than a potential win from the moment the arena doors opened. The Capitals were no longer penciled into the Stanley Cup Final by pundits hopeful that “This time it would be different.”
Ovechkin, meanwhile, was coming off the worst goal-scoring season of his career: 33 tallies, after breaking 50 in the previous three seasons, which led both Barry Melrose of ESPN and Mike Milbury of NBCSN to wonder openly if the Capitals should seek to trade him.
“I think the Ovechkin experiment has to be reviewed. Lots of decisions to make. He tries hard. I just don’t think he’s a heady enough hockey player to get it done in key moments,” Milbury said.
What coach Barry Trotz wanted to do was get inside Ovechkin’s head. His son works in Russia, so Trotz paid a visit to Ovechkin in the summer of 2017 for a heart-to-heart talk. The coach was entering his fourth season in Washington, without a contract for a fifth. He had been behind the bench for three straight conference semifinal losses by the Capitals.
During that time, Ovechkin had married Anastasia Shubskaya, which is a far cry from being the guy in his 20s putting his cellphone number on Russian television for dates. Trotz sensed his captain was entering a new phase of his life and career. And he sensed that Ovechkin wasn’t happy about where the latter was.
“I talked to Alex about changing a little bit,” he said. “What I saw as a coach and being in the league for a while, as you get older, those opportunities and things you did when you were 23, you can’t do when you’re 33. That’s just life. You have to grow.”
So Trotz challenged him, and he didn’t sugarcoat the challenge. He wanted nothing less than Ovechkin to redefine himself in the face of critics who felt his time as a dominant player was over. He wanted total commitment to what the Capitals wanted to do that season. He needed Ovechkin to expand his game as far as the ice would allow it — to become that player the TSN boys said he was at the draft 13 years before.
“There were a lot of people doubting if he still had what it took. The great players take exception to that,” Trotz said. “A lot of things were said at the end of last year in the press, Twitter, whatever. And they’re hurtful, and I think he took it personally. He said, ‘I’m going to show you I’m still a great player.'”
Alex Ovechkin is 32 years old
He’s beaming, standing in front of a slowly dissipating sea of yellow in Pittsburgh, moments after his pass to linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov gave the Capitals the Game 6 victory in the Eastern Conference semifinals and finally (finally, finally) eliminated Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Take away the gap tooth, the graying beard and the crow’s feet around his eyes, and it’s the same enthusiastic grin he had 14 years ago on draft day. Which is understandable, given both days were his graduation.
“It finally happened. Finally, we beat them,” he said. “Tough series. Great matchup. It’s something special. We’ve never been there.”
In this context, “there” was a championship round, conference or otherwise. “There” was also defeating their postseason tormentors, which sparked a raucous and lengthy celebration in the Capitals’ dressing room, the Caps having been a roadblock to what the Penguins hoped would be a dynastic three-peat as Stanley Cup champions.
“Thank God this happened. We move forward,” Ovechkin said.
They moved forward because Ovechkin drove them there, as he would drive them through three rounds of the 2018 playoffs. His two goals in the Game 6 elimination of John Tortorella’s Columbus Blue Jackets. His points on three of the four game-winning goals against the Penguins, including a goal with 1:07 left in Game 3. His goals in Games 1 and 2 at Tampa, and then to open Game 7 against the Lightning. And so on.
Ovechkin always put up numbers in the playoffs. That’s indisputable. But the impact of those offensive moments wasn’t always timely. The narrative cast in 2009 against Pittsburgh and 2010 against Montreal wasn’t necessarily inaccurate. But he rewrote it in 2018, driving the Capitals to victory with his performances, his commitment to the system and his unburdened enthusiasm for what was unfolding. He blocked shots. He joyously celebrated his own goals and those of his teammates. The weight of expectations was finally lifted from him.
“If we’re being serious here, I think getting past that second round is a relief for him. I think beating Pittsburgh was a huge deal for him,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen. “He hasn’t talked about it. But I know him and he’s a competitive guy and he takes it pretty hard.”
Ovechkin was full of gleeful relief. The Capitals played free of expectations in the regular season. Few believed they had the mettle to finally overcome Pittsburgh, let alone play for the Cup. Ovechkin did.
“We believe in each other. It doesn’t matter what happened. We have to stick together. We knew it’s there. We just have to battle, and we just have to fight through it,” he said.
For the fourth time, Ovechkin and Crosby skated through the handshake line in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Their relationship had changed since that first battle in 2009, having bonded as the elder statesmen at the All-Star Game, for example. While friendship was unlikely, there was a mutual respect. And while the Penguins and Crosby have made this rivalry incredibly lopsided, Ovechkin finally had his moment.
“I’ve been in this position lots of times,” he said of shaking Crosby’s hand. “He just wished me good luck.”
Alex Ovechkin is with the Stanley Cup
Ovechkin took his helmet off with 0.6 seconds remaining in the game. The Golden Knights were about to take a faceoff in the offensive zone, but it didn’t matter. The Capitals were going to be Stanley Cup champions. Alex Ovechkin was going to be a Stanley Cup champion.
He was one of the later players to dive onto the pile behind Braden Holtby’s net, and as he did he looked up and screamed to the heavens. Or more specifically, those he felt has been watching over him in his playoff run.
“I know the members of my family that passed away, they were with me today. They helped me a lot. It’s something special,” said Ovechkin. “I can’t wait to go home and celebrate. See my mom. Kiss her. I’m going to call my dad right now. Tell him we did it.”
When Ovechkin first held the Stanley Cup, he let out a primal scream that might still be echoing through the arena, as if he was casting out every last vestige of heartbreak in one blissful bellow.
“I think there were a lot of series where maybe Washington got eliminated but he had great series. He probably took the brunt of the criticism just because he’s the captain and the highest-paid guy,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “I think a lot of guys feel for him in that situation. If you watched the reaction of his teammates when he got the Cup, I think it speaks volumes about how guys feel about him. He’s a very unique captain, you’ll probably never find another guy like him. He leads in a very unique way. But he definitely pulls guys into the fight.”
For the first time in franchise history, they won the fight. For the first time in franchise history, the Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup champions. And for the first time, and now forever, Alex Ovechkin will never again hear the “but.”