WASHINGTON, D.C. — “I want to win the Stanley Cup. I want to be the best, just the best. I must work. I must learn. Help my team. Play hockey, that’s all. Hockey is my life, you know. If I do not play hockey, I do not know what I do.” – Alex Ovechkin, October, 2005, via the Washington Post.
When Alex Ovechkin stepped on to the T-Mobile Arena ice ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, he could feel how much of an atmosphere change it was compared to the previous three rounds of the playoffs. There was a different energy in the air and the stage was even bigger than he had ever experienced.
On Saturday night, Ovechkin will hit the Capital One Arena ice for his first home game ever in a Cup Final. It’s been 20 years since the Capitals have played host to one, which means more of that different atmosphere and energy the Washington captain talked about, but unlike the scene in Vegas, the support will be behind him and his teammates.
“I’m excited. I think everybody’s excited in Washington,” Ovechkin said. “It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be interesting, it’s going to be hard — but that’s why we work so hard to be in this spot and be in this moment.”
Even through the numerous playoff disappointments, Ovechkin has always kept a loose mentality. No matter the situation, he’s tried to keep his teammates upbeat, even when times have been bad. He’s taken the losses hard, but that’s because he wants to win so badly.
Jay Beagle is one of the longer-tenured Capitals and has seen that regular season success turn into playoff disappointment. Through it all, he says, Ovechkin has remained the same.
“He’s always had a calming presence because he always keeps it loose and is a lot of fun to be around,” said Beagle, who’s neighbors with Ovechkin in the team’s dressing room. “He’s steps up in the big moments, says things when he needs to, but also keeps it loose when the time is right, too.”
Ovechkin has done his part in helping the Capitals reach the Cup Final. He’s second in the NHL in playoff scoring with 13 goals and 24 points, his most in the postseason since 2009. There’s growth in all players year-to-year, but Beagle says that this year is different.
“All of us grow every year — you grow as a player, you grow as a person,” said Beagle. “He’s been outstanding. Every time we’ve gone into the playoffs, he’s been our best player. But I really think he’s taken over the team. He’s really taken this as his team and he’s stepped his game up even more than he has in the past, which is very hard to do. He’s our leader. We follow him. He’s been unreal. He’s been unreal ever since I’ve been here, but he’s also growing like everyone else is growing, as a player and a person. He’s stepped up huge this playoffs.”
Since Ovechkin was drafted in 2004, he’s wanted to deliver a Stanley Cup to D.C. This is the closest he’s ever been to it, and the Capitals are three more wins away from delivering.
“He’s made a promise to himself to get his game to the next level and bring our team with him. I think he’s done that,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “I think he’s delivering on a lot of aspects. I think he’s grown as a player and our captain.”
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub