A diving Alex Ovechkin lifts the puck over goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead in Game 3. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Sports columnist

The goal is the important play. It will be on the highlights, and it put the Washington Capitals ahead in the second period, and it’s what Alex Ovechkin has built a reputation — an entire life, really — on. How Ovechkin scored that goal matters, too, because he wasn’t in his La-Z-Boy in the left faceoff circle. Instead, he was tangled among bodies, a greasy spot he might not always have gone to, falling to the ice because that’s exactly what it took.

But even if Ovechkin’s goal spurred the Capitals’ 3-1 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night at dead-red Capital One Arena in the third game of the Stanley Cup finals, go back to the first period, the first period of June hockey this building has hosted in 20 years. With about two minutes remaining, Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt loaded up a shot.

And there was Ovechkin, moving up on Schmidt. He did not avoid the puck. He sought it. As the puck rose, Ovechkin’s left knee rose with it. There was never a danger of it reaching goaltender Braden Holtby. Ovechkin blocked it.

“It’s the Stanley Cup final,” Ovechkin said afterward. “What do you want to do? It’s all in for everybody.”

All in for the captain. All in for the city. The entire exercise of Saturday night was a reminder of how thirsty the District is for a champion. In the hours before the game, F Street was packed, home to three television stages and thousands of fans. Drink it in and enjoy it because we know that one opportunity won’t necessarily beget another.


With Saturday night’s victory in Game 3, Ovechkin and the Capitals are within two wins of their first Stanely Cup. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

While surveying that crowd, consider that none of it happens without Ovechkin. We have understood that for more than a decade, but it’s important to acknowledge it again now. Saturday night was Ovechkin’s 564th game in this building. The last 414 of those have been sellouts built on the back of No. 8. But this was his first home game in the Stanley Cup finals. Scoring the first goal here, call it karmic or whatever — it felt perfect.

“I thought that was a little bit of poetic justice, if you will,” Coach Barry Trotz said, “for all the tough times.”

Rewatch and relive the goal, then. But in that blocked shot is everything Ovechkin is giving, at the end of his 13th season, to win his first Stanley Cup. It was a reminder that we are watching a transcendent goal scorer, the best of his generation, playing the most complete hockey of his life.

“He’s as engaged as anyone could ever be, I think,” defenseman John Carlson said. “It shows in his game. And it shows in the effect it has on the rest of us.”

Ovechkin’s primary mission — 10 years ago and Saturday night and forever — will be to score. He has done that this postseason. That goal in the second period was his 14th of these playoffs, tying the franchise’s postseason record. The Capitals have played 22 games during this run. Ovechkin has recorded a point in 17 of them. He is doing his job and doing it well.


Fans packed Capital One Arena on Saturday night for the franchise’s 414th consecutive sellout. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

But let’s look at the way he did that job Saturday. Evgeny Kuznetsov took one shot, but even as he did, Ovechkin was planting himself like a redwood in front of the crease. This is a “hard-to-get-to” area so frequently referenced this time of year. Ovechkin not only got there. He considered buying furniture.

“It was mayhem from there,” Carlson said. “It was hackin’ and whackin’.”

So when Carlson pounced on Kuznetsov’s rebound and got off another shot, Ovechkin had put in the work. The puck squirted to the right of Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb tried to ward him off. No chance. Ovechkin reached with his backhand and flipped it in.

Capital One Arena, which spent much of the first period sort of feeling out the game, erupted. How many of the 18,506 who cheered that goal were first drawn to this rink by Ovechkin? But when past playoff runs ended a month earlier, he so frequently took the blame. I know because I have blamed him.

That blame, locally or nationally or from Canada or back home in Russia, it was a burden. We are watching it get lifted. No, no. Rather, we are watching him lift it off himself.

“He has absorbed everything since he came to town,” said Vegas General Manager George McPhee, the man who drafted Ovechkin when McPhee held the same position with Washington. “He’s been in the spotlight. It’s been a nice thing for other players — whether it’s Kuznetsov or [Nicklas] Backstrom or Carlson, many of these guys — to not play with the pressure that he has to play with. He absorbs everything, win or lose.”

Right now, the Capitals — and Ovechkin — are winning. It’s a remarkable thought that Saturday’s result puts them all of two wins from the Stanley Cup. They will, of course, be the two most difficult wins of Ovechkin’s career.

Whether he scores or not, watch Ovechkin in these games. The camera is drawn to him. He always has been mesmerizing on the ice, the player your eye subconsciously follows.

Now he’s almost as entertaining off the ice. When Holtby made the save of his life Wednesday night — preserving a victory in Game 2 — Ovechkin covered his face with both his gloves, disbelieving and thankful and relieved all at once. When Kuznetsov scored to put the Capitals up 2-0 later in the second period Saturday, Ovechkin jumped to his feet and thrust his arms and his eyes skyward, joyous and appreciative, so in the moment.

“You just want to give emotion to your teammates,” Ovechkin said, “and to yourself as well.”

The emotion isn’t the half of it. The effort is more important. Ovechkin is all over the stat sheet. Saturday night: five shots, two more that were blocked, three more that missed the net, two hits, a takeaway. And, just as he has throughout these playoffs, two blocks — two of the Capitals’ 26.

“You see your leader, the guy who isn’t exactly paid to do those things, it makes everyone want to do the same,” said forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who scored the third goal. “. . . It makes every guy want to jump up into shots.”

On Saturday night, Alex Ovechkin’s goal helped the Capitals win a game. It was huge. The shots he blocks? Maybe they’re small by comparison. But they just might be the commitment that wins this series — and, therefore, the Cup.