That doesn’t mean, though, layers can’t be added, that some of the old assumptions can’t be further debunked. The Washington Capitals’ trip to the Toronto bubble was a downright debacle until Ovechkin helped his team transform from a dumpster fire into the best version of itself. The Caps’ season teetered on the precipice until Ovechkin brought it back. The Caps, maybe now more than ever, will go as far as Ovechkin pushes them.
“He’s a generational talent on the ice. There is no question,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said Wednesday via Zoom. “We can get that out of the way right now. He is amazing at what he does — not just scoring goals but other things. [He] likely will go down as the best goal scorer ever.
“But it is the things that I’ve seen him grow in the six years that I’ve been here that have really helped define our organization — having the success that we had a few years ago, ultimately winning the Stanley Cup. But his leadership overall has grown immensely. I can’t even define all the ways that it has grown.”
Even in the month before he turns 35. Even at the end of his 15th NHL season. Even with the security provided by 706 regular season goals, by nine Rocket Richard trophies as the league’s top goal scorer, with that Stanley Cup to prove all his accolades aren’t individual.
When the Caps had been terrible, he turned them torrid. He scored the game-tying goal in the second period, a power-play shot that could be laid over so many of his power-play goals from last year or last decade and you would scarcely know the difference. He scored the game-winning goal on a rush in the third, a heat-seeker that beat countryman Semyon Varlamov before whistling under the crossbar. Don’t blame Varlamov. Neither Martin Brodeur nor Dominik Hasek nor Patrick Roy could have stopped that shot, either.
“That’s what leaders do and superstars do,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said, “is they step up when need be.”
So that’s Ovechkin’s reputation now, stepping up when need be. Yet there has been something of an evolution where postseason Ovechkin is concerned. When he was young, the Caps always had potential in the playoffs because of his sheer talent and exuberance. As the springtime disappointments piled up, Ovechkin was somehow seen as holding his team back — a view that was shared here, particularly following the debilitating 2017 loss, again to Pittsburgh, again in Game 7, again in the second round.
Understand this: It can be accurate and justified to question Ovechkin’s fitness to lead a team to the Cup back then and praise him for leading in 2018 — when he finally delivered the Cup — and again now, when there is still a significant hill to climb. Athletic heroes aren’t stagnant beings, carved in granite, incapable of change. That’s what Ovechkin did: change.
“He led us to a championship,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said on the ice the night Ovechkin raised that Cup in Las Vegas. “He did lead. He did lead. … He had a different air about him this year. As the year went on, he became better and better, stronger and stronger. It had to be something internal.”
There’s evidence that he has carried it forward, through two more regular seasons in which he scored 99 goals in 149 games, through last year’s disappointing seven-game loss to Carolina in which he scored four times and had five assists, and into these odd playoffs in a coronavirus-necessitated bubble, in which he has four goals in four games against the Islanders. The Capitals have played 25 elimination games in the Ovechkin era. He has 24 points — 13 goals and 11 assists — in those games. Given how much harder it is to score in the postseason, that’s not shrinking in the most massive moments.
But as he has gotten older, he may have gotten better, too. Physically? Maybe. How about in his commitment?
Consider the heart and the height of all the questions about Ovechkin, when he couldn’t push the Caps through. From the 2015 playoffs through the 2017 playoffs — years that produced excruciating second-round losses, first to the New York Rangers and then twice to the Pittsburgh Penguins — Ovechkin averaged 0.38 goals per game, which paled against his regular season rate of 0.61 per game to that point in his career. Over the past three seasons — beginning with the run to the Cup — that postseason rate has increased to 0.61, an exact mirror of his regular season rate over the course of his career.
So there’s something there, an improvement in black and white. But how does that relate to an improvement in areas we can’t see?
“Obviously the goals we don’t need to discuss,” Reirden said Tuesday night. “No one can score goals like this player. It was the other stuff that went on. It was the stuff that was said in the locker room. It was the stuff that was said to teammates. It was the stuff that was said on the bench. It was physicality. It was belief. It was the emotion that he showed after he scored the goal: ‘Get in line because we are going.’”
I’ve said this before, but it doesn’t make it less true: For years as they pursued an elusive cup, the Capitals constantly had to import leadership, whether it was trading for Sergei Fedorov or Jason Arnott or signing Mike Knuble or Justin Williams. They needed veteran players who had won elsewhere to come in and say, “Here’s how it’s done.”
Now, when a newcomer enters the Caps’ locker room, they have a group — Ovechkin, sure, but Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie and John Carlson — who can say instead, “This is how we do it.” That matters.
Could the Capitals lose Game 5 to the Islanders on Thursday? Absolutely. Is it possible Ovechkin could be completely locked down by New York Coach Barry Trotz and shrewd defensemen Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock? For sure.
But what Tuesday night showed is that Alex Ovechkin, as a goal scorer and a leader, is not yet done. His place in his sport’s history — in his town’s history — is unassailable. That doesn’t mean he is finished etching it.
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