The Great Ones Get It

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ted Leonsis recalls the return trip from the NHL awards ceremony last June.

Alex Ovechkin had won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league MVP, the Lester B. Pearson Award as the most outstanding player chosen by the NHL Players Association, the Art Ross Trophy as the league's top point scorer and the Maurice Richard Trophy as the league's top goal scorer. There was so much hardware, it nearly didn't fit on the plane.

As thrilled as Leonsis was that one of his team's players had been so decorated, Leonsis said to Ovechkin: "Do you want to be like Charles Barkley, a great player and a big personality who makes a lot of money and is loved by everybody? Or do you want to be like Michael Jordan and win championships?" Asked after Monday night's Game 2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins if he recalled Ovechkin's response, Leonsis said, "Alex knows that a place in history only comes with winning the Stanley Cup."

Ovechkin's real and more meaningful response to that question has come in recent playoff games, particularly Monday night's three-goal outburst that led the Washington Capitals to a 2-0 series lead over Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby scored all three of the Penguins' goals, but there was a bodaciousness about Ovechkin's performance that right now separates him from every player in the game, including the gifted Crosby.

You can't expect Ovechkin to explain it in his still developing English, but there's something universally understandable about "give me the puck and get the hell out of my way." Or as Leonsis said late Monday night: "Sid is the best white wine the restaurant has to offer. Alex is a Denver Slammer, a shot of tequila in a glass of champagne. You whack the glass so that the fizz is coming up and you just shoot it."

Crosby is a wonderfully skilled player, technically superior.

Ovechkin is a beast. He explodes, like a tornado. Ovechkin is scary. His shot is scary. There's an aggression about him, a barely controlled fury that Crosby, great as he is, doesn't have. Nobody else has it. Watching Ovechkin on Monday night reminded me of watching Bobby Hull play for the Chicago Blackhawks when I was a kid.

He's the fastest, toughest guy with the biggest shot, the fewest teeth.

Every great player wants to win. Ovechkin wants to beat you down.

Bruce Boudreau, Ovechkin's coach, is a connoisseur of sports. He watches them all, savors them all and is appreciative of greatness.

"All the great players, whether we're talking about Michael Jordan or John Elway or Brett Favre, all of them have this one quality, a 'to hell with you' attitude, one that says: 'I'm going through you or around you. It doesn't matter,' ' Boudreau said. "And Alex has loads of it. He occasionally will come back to the bench after scoring a goal and he'll give you that Hulk pose, like he's Hulking up. He's so into it. It's a mode that all the great ones get into."

The Capitals certainly got it right in 2004 when they drafted Ovechkin over Evgeni Malkin, the regular season scoring leader who has zero goals for the Penguins in the last five games of these playoffs, which means none so far in this series.

The Capitals even got the better of it having Ovechkin instead of Crosby -- at least that's the bet here. I want the guy who's an SOB, who's got a charisma that can enable him to carry a team. Yeah, they both had three goals Monday night. But Crosby took five shots, scored three goals and had zero hits. Ovechkin took 12 shots, scored three goals and recorded four hits.

What isn't measurable statistically is how much Ovechkin wants to win.

Boudreau observed last week that Ovechkin had put aside his obsession with winning one-on-one battles and learned how to dump the puck in when necessary, a significant adjustment for the playoffs.

"His mind-set is to win the game. That's it," the coach said. "Some nights I might say to him, 'I've got to put you on this line tonight.' And he'll say, 'Whatever you gotta do.' He wants to play 60 minutes every night. But he never ever complains to me about not putting him on [the ice]. When your superstar is on your side like that . . ."

Stanley Cup playoff series are very often won, famously, by hot goaltenders.

And the Capitals are quite fortunate to have one in kid goalie Simeon Varlamov, who was spectacular again Monday night. General Manager George McPhee, with Leonsis's blessing, has stocked the team with diversely talented players. But hot goaltenders cool off, then they leave. Role players, even ones as terrific as former Capital and current Penguin Sergei Gonchar, come and they go.

But the greatest players -- players who fill arenas, win duels with other great players, inspire teammates and coaches with the force of their personalities and back down opponents who are merely good -- they come along once in a great while.

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