Pat Riley once told me that as agonizing as losing in the playoffs can feel, over time it actually steels the crestfallen contender. “So when the championship parade happens, the hurt you’ve felt for years just boils over,” he said, circa 1999. “And it becomes a euphoria no one who hasn’t been to the depths of losing at that level can imagine.”
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Boudreau said. “We obviously want to go farther, do better. But if we start talking about the Stanley Cup in September, that’s putting the cart before the horse. I want us to be a better team in November than October. I want us to be a better team in May than in February before we start talking about the Cup.”
When we last left Gabby, Ovie and the boys, a good part of eight months and another heavenly end to a regular season was spoiled by one hellish playoff series in six unsightly days.Swept from the NHL postseason by Tampa Bay in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the annual Fire This Guy/Trade That Guy conversation grew loud, even boisterous.
And the owner-general manager team of Ted Leonsis and George McPhee responded by doing what they do best: sticking with the people the angry reactionaries wanted gone.
Alexander Semin? Love or loathe him, Sasha is still here. Mike Green? Uh-uh. Greenie wasn’t going anywhere. Boudreau? Foolishness. Just as Semin, Green, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom annually become more complete professionals, the thought is Boudreau also becomes a better coach each year.
It would be wrong to drastically change a formula about to be perfected, Leonsis and McPhee reason. Patience and Riley-type resolve, born out of perennial playoff heartbreak, have become part of the Caps’ offseason strategy.
And while Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and every other summer acquisition looks smart and appears to meet a need — while seven players 30 or older give the Capitals the savvy and experience to balance their unbridled youth better than ever — let’s be clear: This is still about the young guns, whether they are finally ready to mature into conference champions and maybe more.
This is still about the captain, who turns 26 Saturday.
Happy birthday, Ovie. Now go win the damn Cup and shut everyone up.
One of the more xenophobic thoughts in NHL circles for years was that European captains don’t hoist the Stanley Cup. Don’t think Ovechkin hasn’t heard the whispers.
The worst stereotype goes like this: They don’t care enough. The next one goes like this: Between language barriers and their style-over-substance hockey roots, they could never command respect like a good, ol’ North American boys digging the puck out in the corners.
That thinking not only discounts the fact that Nicklas Lidstrom actually broke that barrier as captain of the Red Wings; it completely discounts Ovechkin’s fire, which trumps his flair.
“I don’t think it’s fair criticism,” Boudreau said. “Every individual is different. What constitutes a great captain? He practices hard. He’ll do anything for his teammates. I don’t think Ovie is a good captain; I think he’s a great captain. And I think he’s going to prove it to people.”
I like that it didn’t take Ovechkin long to own his part in what went wrong at the end of last season. On his way home to Russia, he phoned Leonsis en route to the airport: “I’m just calling to thank you for what you’re doing for us, and I apologize,” Ovechkin told the owner last May, Leonsis said. “What I’m doing isn’t working. I have this offseason and I’ll try a different training regimen and I hope to come in in better shape and do better. I’m going to watch a lot of film, and I don’t like this feeling. I think we’re better than our playoff performance is.”
Though cryptic about his offseason workout program this summer, Ovie is leaner now, almost chiseled walking around Kettler Capitals Iceplex. As The Post’s Katie Carrera observed, it’s progress that he hasn’t deluded himself into thinking he can play himself into shape during the season.
Of the greatest single-season goal scorers in NHL history, just one managed his most prolific season after 25 years of age: Brett Hull, who scored 86 goals at age 26 during the 1990-91 season. The rest, from Wayne Gretzky’s otherwordly 92 goals the 1981-82 season to Mario Lemieux’s 85 goals the 1988-89 season, came between 20 and 24 years old.
Who knows if Ovechkin can put up dizzying scoring numbers again? Really, who cares? It’s about whether the captain and the nucleus are ready, whether their playoff failures have further fueled their desire.
“I get a chance to watch the most exciting player in the game every practice, every day,” Boudreau said, never taking for granted the talent he was given to mold into a champion.
Leonsis stuck with McPhee through rough patches. McPhee has stuck with Boudreau and the Capitals’ core through tough playoff losses. They have all been patient in their own ways, waiting to play into June.
Now it’s time.