The headlines were already coming into focus, like rubbing one of those invisible ink kiddie books and seeing the dark type start to emerge. The Capitals were going to lose to the Penguins in five games, their season was going to end in the second round again, and Alex Ovechkin was going to be in the spotlight.
“It’s not good,” NBC’s Mike Milbury said of Ovechkin’s performance during the second intermission Saturday night, when the Caps trailed Pittsburgh and the end seemed near. “This is the third consecutive game where the ‘Great 8’ has just reduced his name to Average 8. This is not a great player that we’re watching here. This is a player that can’t find his way, looks to be totally consumed by his own thoughts. … This is not good enough from Alex Ovechkin, and some of it comes from a lack of effort. Maybe he’s overthinking, but he’s running out of time.”
We all knew this was coming if the Caps flamed out again, and not just from NBC’s longtime Caps antagonist. Ovechkin can’t put a team on his shoulders. Ovechkin will never match Sidney Crosby’s team accomplishments. Ovechkin isn’t even Charles Barkley or Dan Marino, who both made it to their sport’s championship round. Instead, he’s Chris Paul, a superstar unable to even make it to a conference finals.
Maybe those unfair headlines will return Monday or Wednesday night, if the Caps lose to in Game 6 or 7. But they’re not here yet. And that’s thanks in part to Ovechkin, who late Saturday night did the thing he does better than virtually anyone who has played this sport: take a puck and, by force of will, deposit it in a net. He blasted a shot off defenseman Ron Hainsey, collected the rebound himself, and blasted it past Marc-Andre Fleury, a throwback feat of power, gravity taking control. It was a Russian locomotive against the world, and the locomotive won.
His goal gave Washington a two-score cushion, allowing everyone who cares about the Capitals to breathe. And the goal again put the lie to that annual (and inaccurate) complaint: that Ovechkin disappears in big moments. He hasn’t been himself in this series, and that goes on his permanent ledger. But in 19 career games facing playoff elimination, Ovechkin now has 10 goals and 10 assists. In 18 career playoff games against the rival Penguins, he has 12 goals and 14 assists — better production than his absurd regular-season averages. Since he entered the league, only three men have more points in Game 7s. Since he entered the league, only three men with at least 40 postseason games average more goals per game.
“You can see how he play today,” Evgeny Kuznetsov said after the 4-2 win. “That’s our captain.”
This is the second straight year the Caps have come home trailing the Penguins three games to one, with their season on the line. Both times, prominent Washington sportswriters suggested that if the Caps failed to advance, Ovechkin should be traded. It’s not a serious idea, because of his contract and his position with the franchise. Still, if you squint, you can sort of understand the frustration that prompts such thoughts. Ovechkin has played for five coaches, for two general managers, with all different sorts of supporting casts, in all sorts of different styles. And yet postseason success has never clicked into place, and Washington’s most memorable playoff goals have come from other men: Sergei Fedorov (2009), Joel Ward (2012), Kuznetsov (2015) and Nicklas Backstrom (2016).
Before Saturday, Ovechkin’s most prominent moments in this series have been less than ideal: the much-scrutinized hack at Crosby just before Pittsburgh’s star was concussed in Game 2, the disappearance in Game 4, and the move to Washington’s third line before the desperation Game 5.
“It’s a big demotion,” NBC’s Jeremy Roenick said before the game. “If I’m him … if I’m going down to the third line, I’m going to be out of my mind — irate and mad.”
If he was those things, the captain didn’t let it out. He’ll never get credit for it, but Ovechkin has made sacrifices this season for the good of his team, the sort of thing his critics have hounded him about for years. He was asked to play fewer minutes in the regular season, and he did so without complaint. He averaged fewer shots per game than in any season since Dale Hunter’s shot-blocking bonanza. He panned his own subpar performance after Game 4 — when his coach openly said the Caps needed more from their stars — and was then bumped down to a line with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. With all due respect to Eller and Wilson, this was late-career Tchaikovsky putting on a concert at the Warrenton Elks Lodge. Ovechkin’s reaction?
“Right now it’s not a good time to talk about ‘Well, I’m gonna play less, or I’m gonna play more,’ ” he said after Game 5. “We’re here to get result and we’re here to get successful as a team, not individual.”
On Saturday night, Ovechkin received less than 18 minutes of ice time, just sixth among Washington forwards and by far the least of any of his 18 postseason meetings with the Penguins. He wasn’t noticeable in those first two periods, when the can’t-win-the-big-one narrative started to hover. Then came the third period, when he hit a post, put his legs in front of a Pittsburgh slap shot, and created an insurance goal, virtually by himself. It gave his team another chance to stay alive. And it gave Ovechkin another chance to stave off those darkening headlines, the ones about asterisks and legacies.
You don’t have to be a homer to want those headlines to fade away. You just have to be someone who appreciates historical talent, who would rather not see a career marked by greatness be defined by playoff losses. His personal postseason numbers are just fine; Ovechkin has two goals and three assists in his past three elimination games. But no one will care if he doesn’t do it again Monday. No one will care if his team doesn’t come along with him.
Ovechkin almost certainly isn’t the best forward on this team right now. His best days are almost certainly behind him. He once told Ted Leonsis a story about going to a discothèque and downing 20 Red Bulls in a single night; those days are almost certainly behind him, too. Milbury was right about one thing in his intermission rant: Ovechkin is running out of time. His career doesn’t deserve an asterisk. The Capitals somehow winning this series would go a long way to making that asterisk disappear.