Alex Ovechkin leaves the ice after Game 7, an Eastern Conference champion for the first time. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

One of the many surreal moments in the aftermath of the Capitals’ Game 7 win in Tampa Bay on Wednesday night was watching NBC Sports Network analyst Mike Milbury gush — perhaps more than he’s ever gushed — about Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, whose early goal paved the way for Washington’s first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 20 years.

“He was, again, a leader, and he showed it in all sorts of ways,” Milbury, one of Ovechkin’s more vocal critics throughout his career, said of the Capitals winger. “Certainly the goal was one. He was physical again, intelligent in his play. You can’t say enough about him. I think he’s a different guy than what we saw over the last 10 years or so. The maturity level is there, consistently good decisions, talking to the media even he’s better at that. He seems to be more relaxed about it. He’s earned this with his teammates.”

Milbury mentioned how Ovechkin was “a major factor in the outcome” of Game 6 on Monday, despite not registering a point. “I wish it had happened about 12 years ago, but we’ll take it any time we can get it, because this guy’s putting on a show,” he said. It was during Game 6 that Milbury’s fellow analyst, Keith Jones, compared Ovechkin’s tone-setting performance to six-time Stanley Cup champion Mark Messier and described him as an “absolute beast.” Wednesday’s goal, 62 seconds into the first period, was Ovechkin’s 12th of the playoffs and established a new career-high for points (22) in a single postseason.

What a difference a year makes. After the Capitals were eliminated by the Penguins in the second round last May, Milbury singled out Ovechkin’s performance in Game 7 for all the wrong reasons.

“He was on the ice for both goals against, one of them very directly involved and the first one I thought he had a decent chance to get it out, looked a little lazy on it,” Milbury said. “I think the Ovechkin experiment has to be reviewed. Lots of decisions to make. He tries hard, I just don’t think he’s a heady enough hockey player to get it done in key moments.”

Milbury said he saw a real change in Ovechkin this season, and he and Jones suggested his meeting with Capitals Coach Barry Trotz last summer in Moscow might have had something to do with it.

“He’s always done most of the major things that you need to do in order to be a winner, but never put it together in a package consistently until now,” Milbury said. “And now you’re seeing the difference between a great goal-scorer — a Hall of Fame goal-scorer — and a guy that’s playing for the Stanley Cup. It’s a big difference. … We’ve always seen the skill, and we’ve seen the will. We’ve seen his physicality, but the difference is in an approach that says it’s not about anything but finding ways to get a win for the team. It’s about finding ways to make your teammates feel better about themselves. It’s about finding ways to recover from a blow that your team has suffered, and they’ve done all of that this postseason.”

Early Thursday morning, a more prominent and less surprising voice sang the praises of Ovechkin, as Capitals fan and “SportsCenter” host Scott Van Pelt dedicated his “One Big Thing” segment to the Great Eight. It was a joy to listen to. Here’s the transcript in full:

“His hair is still as thick as it ever was, but it’s a graying mop these days. His face is still Charlie Brown round, with the familiar gaptoothed smile,” Van Pelt said. “But Alex Ovechkin, long ago outgrew being a kid. In some ways, he became the man before he was a man, a teenager when he was chosen No. 1 overall in 2004. He scored twice in his first game as a Capital, he scored 52 that first year. It’s now been 13 years; he’s got more than 600 goals. He had never played for the Stanley Cup, which is why he called Wednesday’s Game 7 with Tampa Bay the biggest of his life. He’ll now have at least four more games that are more important.

“This is a franchise that has been defined by its failures, which is fair. The Cherry Blossoms and the Caps collapse equal spring in D.C. They’ve been great in the regular season repeatedly, to then repeatedly disappoint in the Stanley Cup playoffs. As the face of the franchise, Ovechkin’s the man they put on the poster holding the golf bag over his head instead of the Stanley Cup, and that’s fair too. It comes with the territory when you’re a superstar, but no matter how Wednesday’s game ended or what’s to come against Vegas, any blame laid at his feet for this year would be misplaced. He’s worn the ‘C’ on his sweater and represented every responsibility, every obligation that comes with it, something that’s not always been the case. He’s led this Capitals team with a relentless energy. He has barreled into anything in his way. He has taken more shots than anyone in these playoffs and he’s scored more than 20 points along the way. Though none of those points came in Monday’s Game 6 win, his leadership was mentioned by Coach Barry Trotz and by Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post, who described Ovechkin’s play as ‘burly and bruising, fearless and frightening.’ It was that punishing style employed by the team Barry Melrose lauded after the win that earned him the right to play these 60 minutes more Wednesday.

“At some point, a generationally great player has got to take the next step, to be on stage that matters most. Otherwise, there’s always going to be that nagging, ‘Yeah, but’ when it comes time to measure their impact. Score all those goals? Yeah, but that playoff record. Ovi is far from the Caps’ only star, but again to quote Svrluga, ‘Everything this team does — succeed or fail, whether the view is micro or macro — falls to Ovechkin. It has been that way since 2005. It will be that way until he retires.’ This year, he and they have taken steps together that are new. They could still fall short, but if they do, it won’t be because somehow Alex Ovechkin failed. He has not. From the first goal to open the scoring in Game 7 to the handshake line at the end, he has been what a captain and a superstar are supposed to be. To borrow from [Teddy] Roosevelt’s great speech, ‘The Man in the Arena,’ which is my all-time favorite, ‘If he fails, he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.’ He’s neither cold nor timid. He is daring greatly, and now Alexander Ovechkin will play to win the greatest prize in his sport. Rock the Red.”

Read more on the Capitals:

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