As he gets closer to his mid-30s, another moment could define Alex Ovechkin’s career. That could come as soon as next month, when the Stanley Cup champion will be determined and Ovechkin could . . .
Wait. Slow down. There is, first, this moment: Wednesday night in Tampa, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. And it comes as Ovechkin seems to be seizing his own legacy and transforming it for the better, but simultaneously releasing it because he now understands it does not matter.
Watch him in an absolutely enthralling Game 6 on Monday night at Capital One Arena, and that can make sense. His name does not show up on the score sheet in the Capitals’ 3-0 victory that extended their season. But the player who established the Capitals as the aggressor — burly and bruising, fearless and frightening — wore a scowl on his face and No. 8 on his back. Ovechkin was the leader. Ovechkin set the tone.
“Our leadership,” Coach Barry Trotz said after the game, “you always point to Ovi.”
That’s important. 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.
So the facts, before the puck drops for Game 7: Ovechkin still has not played for the Stanley Cup, and there’s still a coin-flip of a chance that he won’t this spring. Duly noted.
But it’s also important to recognize what’s happening as the Capitals have pushed further into the playoffs than they have in two decades. The stats might not have been there Monday night, but they are there over the course of this run: 11 goals and 21 points in Washington’s 18 postseason games, both totals exceeded by only one player in the entire league.
Depending on what your perspective was when the playoffs opened, that can help either secure Ovechkin’s postseason reputation or flip it if you were in the camp that believed (erroneously, in my view) that he shrank in these moments.
More important, though, is how he’s handling his job as Washington’s most visible and important player. This team has a solid leadership core, for sure, with T.J. Oshie, Brooks Orpik, Nicklas Backstrom and Matt Niskanen all able to contribute in different ways with different words.
None of those players, though, wears the “C” on his sweater. Ovechkin does. I have, for years, believed he was miscast in that role, that he was granted the captaincy because it became available when the Capitals were young and ascendant, and there wasn’t another obvious choice. People within the organization believe it’s not Ovechkin’s natural personality to lead. So the team had to import much of its leadership — whether it was Jason Arnott or Mike Knuble or Justin Williams or even Oshie, Orpik and Niskanen — rather than grow it at home.
This postseason, though, Ovechkin is dragging that line of thinking to the ice, and then pummeling it. There are a few indications. Think about Ovechkin’s most important sequence of these playoffs. It wasn’t a blast from the left circle on a power play. It was a play that began in his own defensive zone, a puck he pushed forward through the neutral zone, and a little tip of a pass forward to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who buried the overtime goal that beat Pittsburgh and pushed Ovechkin to these uncharted territories of the conference finals.
“It doesn’t matter who scores,” Ovechkin has said repeatedly during these playoffs. Now, you believe him, every word. He expounded on that Tuesday when talking to reporters in Tampa.
“You know what?” he asked rhetorically, answering a question about how he manages his energy. “For me, it doesn’t matter what situation I’m in — if I’m on the bench, if I’m on the ice. I’m just going to give my best energy and support my teammates and do what I can. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to be goals, fights or whatever. It’s all one moment.”
One moment to build a legacy while relinquishing the individual accomplishments that serve as its foundation. Ovechkin has the 607 regular season goals that make him a no-brainer Hall of Famer. He has 57 more in the postseason, and now 111 points in 115 playoff games, which certainly don’t detract from his position as the greatest scorer of his generation.
But for so long in springtime, people seemed to want to see more from Ovechkin than just production. There are other indications now that Ovechkin senses this is his time. It’s not 2009, when it seemed these opportunities would come annually, like they were inevitable. In 2018, he knows they’re not, that this is climbing Everest in shorts and flip-flops. He is carrying himself differently because the enormity of the situation is obvious. He understands it, appreciates it and even relishes it.
“As you get older, those opportunities and things you did when you were 23, you can’t do when you’re 33,” Trotz told reporters Tuesday. “That’s just life. You have to grow. I think he was motivated.”
So take a moment in the second period Monday night. Ovechkin had established exactly how the Capitals would play — which, in a word, was punishing — by flattening Tampa Bay forward Yanni Gourde in the first period. Oshie’s goal on a power play had just put the Capitals up in the second when Washington forward Devante Smith-Pelly went behind the Tampa Bay goal and pulverized Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi, a hit so explosive it took out Caps center Jay Beagle as collateral damage.
On the bench after Smith-Pelly finished his shift, there was Ovechkin. The captain acted exactly like a captain. He got in Smith-Pelly’s face. There is no transcript of his remarks, but we can assume he said something like this: “That’s what we &%$#@*! need.”
Lose on Wednesday night, and all of this development might be lost, because Ovechkin would have completed his 13th season and still not played for the Stanley Cup. But what we know, after watching him for the first 18 games of this postseason, is that it matters to him, a lot. He will sacrifice his body and put the bodies of others in peril. He can score, but he doesn’t have to.
Alex Ovechkin’s legacy isn’t written. But it feels like he’s altering it. A victory Wednesday night would be the most significant step he has taken — with more to follow.