About 10 minutes after his 11th NHL season ended, Alex Ovechkin searched for answers in the Consol Energy Center visiting locker room. “Sucks,” he finally muttered, summing up another postseason disappointment succinctly. With a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, the Capitals again failed to reach the conference final in an era marked by Ovechkin’s arrival.
With the most balanced Capitals team ever around him, Ovechkin’s production dipped from last season, but he still reached the 50-goal plateau for a third straight year. He celebrated his 30th birthday, the 10-year anniversary of his most iconic goal and his 500th goal, all markers of how much time has passed. After another year without a championship, questions persist about how much longer the Capitals can lean on Ovechkin before his prime is behind him and a window to win with him closes.
“I think for him, it’s our job is to surround him with a little more depth, so there’s not the pressure,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think he can play a lot more if he doesn’t feel that pressure that he needs to win the games. As [Evgeny Kuznetsov] gets better, as [Andre] Burakovsky gets better — I think he really enjoyed playing with [T.J.] Oshie. I mean, that takes a lot of the pressure off him, offensively, and I think he can play longer given a good team, a deep team.
“I mean, if you’re going to put pressure on him every night to carry the team, he’s not going to be more excited about playing, which is natural.”
For the first time since he entered the league, Ovechkin wasn’t the Capitals’ leading scorer, as he finished with 71 points and Kuznetsov scored 77. He still earned the Rocket Richard Trophy for the most goals scored, and in the playoffs, he scored five goals and seven assists. Often criticized for his leadership, there were again critics when Ovechkin agreed to join the Russian national team for the World Championship, even though Russia is hosting the tournament this year.
Ovechkin was named a finalist for Mark Messier’s NHL Leadership Award, but it’s what his teammates said about his captaincy after the season that resonated more.
“He was a good captain for us this year because he put more commitment into the team goal,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “He’s obviously a big part of what we do here and you can tell he’s starting to get, his defensive game is coming around and he’s starting to realize what we have to do in order to be successful.”
“Listen, I’m going to obviously stick up for my captain,” Justin Williams said. “He did all the right things, said all the right things and this isn’t about him, it’s about us as a team not being quite good enough, obviously.”
“You see how much he cares about the guys, you see how much emotion he plays with,” Oshie said. “I didn’t realize how much he likes to hit people, even though I’ve been on the receiving end a couple times. It was great. He’s a great leader and a fun guy to being around and a fun guy to play with.”
“Took his leadership to a new level,” MacLellan said.
Two days after his 11th NHL season ended, Ovechkin still searched for answers. He said he saw the team make progress from last season, winning the Presidents’ Trophy and setting a franchise-record with 56 wins. He said he’d never been on a team so close-knit. He said the Capitals failed in seizing certain opportunities and that they didn’t hold onto momentum if they had it, words that could be relevant for more than just this playoff exit.
“We have to make a push and don’t just sit back and wait,” he said. “… We have to go and get it.”