LAS VEGAS — Before he finally put his hands on the hardware, Alex Ovechkin turned to his teammates, bent at the waist, opened his furry face and let out a scream. This was everything — every single thing — he had waited on for his 13 NHL seasons and his 1,124 NHL games. But before he touched the Stanley Cup, he had to face his guys.
“It’s nice to be part of it,” Ovechkin said afterward.
And that’s how Alex Ovechkin finally won the Stanley Cup. He thought of himself as a part of it, the leading man as bit player, willing to do whatever it took.
Ovechkin scored a goal in the 4-3 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of these finals that provided the Washington Capitals with their first championship, the championship that makes all the disappointment that preceded it somehow worthwhile. That the goal came on the power play, that it came on a pass from Nicklas Backstrom — that all seemed appropriate, because those two have shared in the building of the Capitals as a contender, but also in the pain that always followed.
But when Ovechkin was allowed to skate over to the Cup, to touch it and hoist it and kiss it and skate away with it, he was aware of the men who afforded him the opportunity. They were people like Devante Smith-Pelly, who slid on his back to score the goal that tied the game in the third period — a castoff who scored as many goals in the playoffs as he did in the regular season. They were people like Lars Eller, who poked home the game-winner with 7:37 left — normally enough time for a cup of coffee, an eternity to the red-sweatered fans who made their presence felt at T-Mobile Arena — not to mention their brothers and sisters who swarmed the streets back home.
In his most private moments, he had to doubt whether this would ever happen. Few athletes in any sport define a sport in their town like Ovechkin defines hockey in Washington. Didn’t the town doubt along with him? At some point, so many failed runs couldn’t just be coincidence.
“This moment, we [were] waiting a long, long time,” Ovechkin said. “Since day one. Funny story. . . . ”
And he launched into a story of his first year in town, of being at the home of Ted Leonsis, who owns the team. “We were swimming in the pool,” Ovechkin said. Leonsis turned to Ovechkin and said: “One day, we’re going to win it.”
Sounded easy at the time. Oh, what both know about the road now.
“What’s it been — 12, 13 years?” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. Take the latter number, and that’s it. “To come through at this point? It’s outstanding.”
But for it to happen, there had to be a change — and there was. Ovechkin spent the last two months erasing so much from what might have been his legacy. Had Thursday night not happened, we would have written the same old stories spring after spring after spring: He can’t push past Pittsburgh or he’s not the leader he should be or there’s something missing that we can’t put our finger on.
Retire without Thursday night, there would be no real discussion about who was the best player in NHL history who failed to win a Cup. There’s no Marcel Dionne or Pavel Bure or Eric Lindros or Cam Neely. There would have been only Alex Ovechkin.
Now? Continue that old argument. It doesn’t involve the most important player in Capitals franchise history. Ovechkin has his Stanley Cup. Try to take it away — Thursday night, or forever.
“It has to change what people think about him,” MacLellan said. “He played a total game. He played within the system. He led us to a championship. He did lead.”
He is 32 now, and maybe had he won his first Cup back in those times when he hung out at Leonsis’s pool, it would have been more about him. As it was, he spent much of Thursday night deflecting attention.
“It’s not about me,” he said. He took a question about Evgeny Kuznetsov, the young Russian centerman who set up so many of Ovechkin’s 15 goals this postseason, and turned it into a tribute not only to Kuznetsov’s talents, but to Smith-Pelly’s work ethic and Eller’s grinding goal. Don’t say this is the same kid who used to celebrate goals at his home rink by hurtling himself into the glass, almost willfully putting himself at risk. At some point, that pure joy dissipated a bit, and Ovechkin seemed to labor. His numbers in the postseason were just fine — 46 goals in 97 games coming into these playoffs. But there was a burden there — a burden of responsibility, fair or not — that was undeniable.
This postseason changes all of that. This spring, every emotion of the Capitals’ fan base was right there on Ovechkin’s face. When the Capitals pushed past the Penguins — how much sweeter does that make this whole thing, by the way? — it was Ovechkin’s look to the heavens that summarized the night. When goalie Braden Holtby made the save of his life to preserve the Capitals’ first victory in this series — 3-2 in Game 2 — Ovechkin buried his head in his gloves, a human exhale.
“He had a different air about him this year,” MacLellan said. “As the year went on, he became better and better, stronger and stronger. It had to be something internal. He said, ‘This is my chance.’ ”
When his chance was realized, he leaped over the boards, and as the scrum formed behind Holtby’s net, Ovechkin was on the edge, not in the middle. When he received the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player of these playoffs, he pointed to his teammates before he even skated over to Commissioner Gary Bettman, who stood with the award.
And then, the Cup. He is the captain, a distinction he earned when this franchise was at a different point in its development. The captain gets to skate with the Cup first. Ovechkin was ready. But he also had a plan.
“He told me he was going to give it to me afterward,” Backstrom said. These two players are most responsible for changing hockey in Washington, for creating a situation in which fans packed the arena to watch the game on television, in which thousands more took it on large screens in the street. Finally, they had their moment — a shared moment.
“We waited so long,” Ovechkin said.
So Ovechkin skated with the Cup first, and he lifted it above his head, and he kissed it. Then he handed it to Backstrom. Try watching that without reaching for the tissues.
And when Backstrom took off up the ice, Ovechkin went with him. “It was nice that he skated around with me,” Backstrom said.
This was a joint venture, Get everyone involved. When each and every Capital had his chance to lift the Cup, there was Ovechkin, one more time.
“Let’s take a picture!” he screamed. “Let’s take a group picture!”
It was the picture he had waited his entire career to take. When it was snapped, he was in the middle with the Cup he thought he might never hold. More important, he was surrounded by the guys who helped him hold it — guys he realized were every bit as important as he was to making this moment finally, mercifully take place.
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Game summary: Capitals 4, Golden Knights 3