“We’re going to come back and win the series,” he said early into the scrum.
“We’re going to play our game and we’re going to come back and we’re going to play Montreal or Tampa,” he said at the end.
Maybe these quotes would have become bulletin-board material during the regular season, when the looming threat of an early summer wouldn’t override every other source of motivation, but Ovechkin at least ensured a hefty dose of breathless discourse until the puck drops at Madison Square Garden. And maybe Ovechkin knew what he was doing, forcing the spotlight away from the rest of the Capitals who dropped into a three-goal hole and spent all of Game 6 digging themselves out. Maybe it was a calculated maneuver, meant to train a sport’s attention on two one-sentence answers while his teammates prepare for the winner-take-all.
Whatever it was, whatever he meant it to be, whatever cockiness or confidence or implication will get latched to it over the next two days, Coach Barry Trotz loved what Ovechkin said. It was what he wanted to hear, no matter if Ovechkin had gone four straight games without registering a point, no matter that the Capitals now stood one loss away from losing a 3-1 series lead and enduring more Game 7 heartbreak.
“I saw that, and that’s what leaders do,” Trotz said. “I think leaders say, ‘This is what we need to do; this is what we’re going to do.’ I think I have a lot more respect for someone who will be bold enough to say, ‘I’m the leader of the hockey team; we’re going to go there and give our best game and we’re going to win the hockey game.’ I’d rather have that than a leader go, ‘Well, we’re going there to lose.’
“I mean, come on. What do you expect a player to say? I love that. I love that a player has got the wherewithal to say hey, we’re going to go there and we’re going to go after them and we’re going to leave it out there. I have a lot of respect for players who say that. Anybody who doesn’t have respect for that, I think, is fooling themselves, because if you want a player to say we’re going there to lose, not one player that I know will ever say that. I have a lot of respect for Ovi in that, I have a lot of respect for all the players who said hey, we’re going to Game 7, we’re going to win the hockey game. That’s the mindset you need to have. If you don’t have that, you might as well pack your bags.”
Of course, they will pack their bags regardless, bound for the building where the Rangers have staved off elimination nine straight times, an NHL record, and won all six Game 7s in their history. It will be Washington’s third Game 7 against them in four years, and their third on the road in Ovechkin’s tenure; the other two both came in 2012, when Joel Ward’s overtime goal fueled the Capitals past Boston in the conference quarterfinals before they lost to the Rangers in midtown Manhattan in the conference semifinals.
And now here they are again, losers of two straight and still victimized by slow starts, still trailed by the same old questions about getting past the second round, because a 3-1 lead became a one-game series. And there was Ovechkin, sitting at the locker stall next to his, speaking softly but firmly, not pounding any pulpit with his guarantee, but convinced that no other route existed.
“I don’t know if we needed to hear it, but here’s your captain who says, ‘Hey, we’re going there, and let’s go there and do it,’” Trotz said. “I have a lot respect for that. I’d rather have that than no one say anything and cowered and put their eyes down and not look you in the face and cowered from anything that might be considered bold or controversial or whatever. You want players to feel that way. Yeah, I’m okay with it.
“Ovi’s done that his whole career. Since I’ve known him, I just got to know him this year, but his whole career he’s said stuff. Every year he says stuff that are bold and he backs it up usually. He’s been one of the best goal scorers this decade. People said oh we can stop, we can do this, we can do that. Well, you can stop him for a bit, but every year I look up and he’s got 50, 60 goals.”
Of course, given the circumstances, even Trotz called upon the obvious parallel. Twenty-one years ago later this month, facing a 3-2 series deficit against the New Jersey Devils, Rangers captain Mark Messier declared, “We’ll win tonight.” He scored a hat trick, forced a Game 7 and led New York to its first Stanley Cup in 54 years. It was Joe Namath-esque, just like Trotz felt his captain could deliver a Messier-like moment, but only if the Capitals respond in kind.
“Well they backed up and won the game,” Trotz said. “No matter what happened in that, that’s what leaders do, and they got it done. Mark’s such a great leader, he’s proven that for the decades with the Oilers and Rangers. He called the shot and he backed it up. So we talk about that. It’s famous now. Who knows?”