COLUMBUS, Ohio — We can debate whether it’s fair — and it’s probably not — but it doesn’t alter the reality of the situation. Whatever the Washington Capitals’ fate, in this or any postseason for the past dozen years, it is tied to the legacy and reputation of one Alex Ovechkin.
For a night and a series, let’s allow the issue to rest. This Capitals’ run in the Stanley Cup playoffs staved off disappointment, for now, in part because Alex Ovechkin is on this team. These Capitals — again, they are Ovechkin’s Capitals until they aren’t — are alive because when he had a chance to push Washington to the second round, he did. He scored the goal that put the Capitals ahead. He scored the trademarked power-play marker that gave them a cushion. He was a force.
What the Capitals’ 6-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 6 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series gave the hockey world is what the hockey world wants, another matchup between Ovechkin’s Capitals and their chief nemesis, Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins. Nationally, that matchup may set up for punchlines at the Capitals’ expense, because they have met three times before and the results have been Penguins in seven, Penguins in six and Penguins in seven — the last two in each of the last two years, perhaps leaving the deepest, darkest scars on both Ovechkin and a Caps fan base that so desperately wants its captain and hero to break through that wall.
So here, there’s another chance. Ovechkin, fresh off a series in which he had eight points in six games — and a game in which he scored the 50th and 51st playoff goals of his career — is ready.
“I said it before: I can’t wait,” Ovechkin said Monday night. “It’s a huge opportunity for us to take a step forward. Obviously, it’s the Stanley Cup champion back-to-back. They know how to play. They know how to handle the pressure.”
Forget the line about how the Caps don’t know those things. Maybe it will come into play. Maybe not. But save it. It’s not for now. Because now is an opportunity. For the Capitals. And for Ovechkin.
“We look to ‘O’ to set an example,” forward T.J. Oshie said.
The example, too, isn’t so much that unstoppable blast from the left circle, the one that makes the jump to hyperspace before the Empire is even aware it has been launched. That’s how Ovechkin’s second goal came Monday night, the one that put Washington up 3-1. But the first one, the rebound off a Brooks Orpik shot from the point. That’s the goal that Ovechkin scored again this season, the goal in which he puts his big rig of a body in front of the net, the goal that makes a difference in playoff games.
“Just adding layers to his game,” Coach Barry Trotz said.
This season, in a way, has been about adding those layers, or re-adding layers he once had but abandoned. That, in turn, allowed Ovechkin to enhance — and elongate — his legacy.
When last year ended in the same, miserable way it always seems to end — a brutal home loss in the playoffs, this one in the seventh game of the second round, again to hated Pittsburgh — I laid a lot of the loss at Ovechkin’s feet. It wasn’t just that game or that series, but the fact that he is the common thread through all the pain over almost a decade.
The truth is, the Caps were outplayed in net in that series; Marc-Andre Fleury, who would be the Penguins’ backup by the time they won the Cup, was better than Braden Holtby.
But in those playoffs, Trotz dropped Ovechkin from his customary, nearly permanent, spot on the first line down to the third. Ovechkin was on the ice for both of the Penguins’ Game 7 goals. And as the offseason turned into 2017-18, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan was frank about what his star needed to do not just to maintain his customary level of production but to remain relevant in a league that is skewing younger: Ovi, MacLellan said, had to improve his speed and return to being a force at even strength, not just the guy who sets up in his Barcalounger on the power play, content to launch missiles and rack up numbers there.
It was an alarming way to speak about the player who is arguably the most important in the history of the franchise. But none of it was exaggerated. It was a simple, honest, harsh assessment of one of the sport’s pillars as he turned 32, as he headed toward what seemed like it might be the twilight of his career. But it was all true.
So how did Ovechkin respond? With a hat trick on opening night, then four goals in the second game of the year. Further flipping off his critics, six of those goals came at even strength. And by the end of the year, what did he have but a league-best 49 goals? The only player to score more than Ovechkin’s 32 at even strength: Edmonton Oilers wunderkind Connor McDavid.
And yet through it all, in the run to a third straight Metropolitan Division title that would not have happened had Ovechkin not been a force, he returned to a theme he has hit on with increasing frequency as the years move on. He brought it up again Monday night.
“It’s all about team,” Ovechkin said.
That’s an easy thing to say, a tougher thing to display. And yet there was Ovechkin, late in the third with the Capitals nursing a two-goal lead, the time in a playoff game when each second seems to take five to click off the clock. In that time when games are decided, Ovechkin sold out to block a shot.
“That gets the boys going on the bench when you see him doing stuff like that,” Oshie said.
“That’s full commitment,” Trotz said. “. . . That’s where you get your street cred with your teammates. It’s those details, those necessary details, that allow you to win.”
By this point, at the end of his 13th NHL season, should Ovechkin need to earn street cred with his teammates? Put that discussion down. The Penguins are on the way to Washington. Ovechkin’s Capitals have never pushed through this team, pushed through this round, to get to the Eastern Conference finals. He knows it. We all know it.
“We’ve been struggling in the second round, and we just have to believe in each other,” he said. “Don’t look what’s happened in previous years. It’s this year. It’s new season. It’s new series.”
Maybe a new result. When the final horn sounded Monday, Ovechkin led the Capitals over the boards to greet Holtby. This wasn’t a mob scene. It was a business-like handshake on what was, at its most basic, a business trip.
We have no idea what the rest of these playoffs will deliver. The mere existence of them brings the possibility of more pain. But we know the next week and a half brings Washington vs. Pittsburgh, one more time. And if Alex Ovechkin wasn’t around, it’s doubtful that treat would await us all.