WASHINGTON — Watching Alex Ovechkin play in person is a completely different experience compared to watching any other player in the NHL. It is not just that he is better than just about everybody else on the ice on any given night. It is all just … different. Every single part of it.
The way he skates. The way he attacks the play with a consistent ferocity that almost seems impossible to maintain (yet he almost always does it anyway). The way the crowd inches toward the edge of their seats and a roar begins to build throughout the building as he carries the puck, almost as if there is anticipation that they know they are going to see something spectacular. The way the puck comes off of his stick and the sound that it makes.
It is all unlike any other player in the league today.
It is unlike almost any other player we have ever seen in the NHL. It has always been this way from the moment he arrived in the NHL during the 2005-06 season.
On some nights you can tell right away when you are in for one of those nights.
The kind of night where a world-class, generational player is just going to take the game over and make it his.
The Washington Capitals’ 3-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night was one of those nights, and it became obvious it was going to be one of those nights in first period when he helped set the tone for what would go on to be a dominating Capitals win.
[Related: Capitals dominate Golden Knights for Game 3 win]
In those opening 20 minutes he attempted eight shots of his own (Vegas’ entire top-line, just for comparison, had six total attempts in the first period), blocked two shots, nearly scored a goal on an odd-man rush only to be turned aside by a sprawling Marc-Andre Fleury who was just barely able to get a piece of shot, and fired a precision cross-ice pass to a wide open Tom Wilson that could have been a goal had Wilson been able to control it. He did just about everything you could expect him to do on the ice except for actually putting the puck in the net.
He ended up doing that just 1:10 into the second period when he scored his 14th goal of the playoffs, tying the franchise playoff record set by John Druce during the 1990 playoffs, capping off a wild scramble around the net.
He finished the game with a game-high 10 total shot attempts, the goal, two hits, and two blocked shots. Was it the best stat line of his career? No. But it could have easily been more than that had it not been for spectacular goaltending from Fleury to rob on him a couple of open looks.
But he was still the best player on the ice and helped drive his team to a 2-1 lead in the series.
He also seemed to take as much joy in celebrating the goals by scored by teammates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Devante Smith-Pelly as he did in his own goal.
“I was emotional when [Smith-Pelly] scored too,” Ovechkin said when asked about his scream toward the heavens when Kuznetsov scored to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead. “It doesn’t matter who scores It’s important, it gives confidence, it gives belief.”
“I think right now it’s just automatic. You just get excited, when [Holtby] makes a huge save you can see all the bench just get excited. It’s the same as if [Kuznetsov] scores, or [Smith-Pelly] scores, it’s huge moments for us. You just want to give emotion to your teammates and to yourself as well.”
There was also a lot of talk post-game about his willingness to step into shooting lanes in the defensive zones (as he did twice in that opening period) and play a complete, 200-foot game and the type of message that sends to the rest of the team.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re going to do, you have to do it your best,” said Ovechkin. “If you block a shot, if you get a hit, you just give energy to your teammates.”
All of this brings us to the situation we have now where Ovechkin and the Capitals are just two wins away from finally — finally! — bringing a Stanley Cup to Washington, and what that is going to do for the story of his career. After years of being the team that couldn’t get it done, and the player that couldn’t get it done, the Capitals and Ovechkin are now within striking distance of changing all of that.
It is certainly going to change the narrative of Ovechkin’s career and how he is perceived as a player.
If the Capitals pull this off we are going to hear about how he became a more complete player. How he did something to “change” the way he played for the betterment of the team. Heck, even if the Capitals don’t win we are still probably going to hear that story simply because the Capitals were finally able to get this close.
To a point, it is understandable.
When a team that has come up short so often finally gets over that hump we have to find a reason or an explanation for why it finally happened. It is almost always a culture change, or an attitude change, or getting the right glue guy in the locker room to bring everyone together. Simply acknowledging that a team’s luck finally changed, or things finally fell into place at the right time, or the goaltending was better, or they did not run into a hot goalie for once is not quite as interesting as rebuilding a narrative. But sometimes that is all it is. A change in fortune or luck.
By trying to make it anything else we are short-changing and not really fully appreciating one of the game’s all-time greatest players for just how dominant he has been for as long as he has been. If you look at Ovechkin’s career postseason performance — where he is one of the most productive players in the league, even in defeat — he has consistently brought it for the Capitals.
He has consistently helped put his team in a position to win (and at times has been even more productive than he has been this postseason).
He is doing all of that again and getting the right help and luck around him.
If the Capitals can win two more games in this series we are going to look at him like he did something different to get here.
He really has not.
He has always been this great. He has always been one of the NHL’s must-see players, the type of player that stands out as soon as he hits the ices.
Now that his team is finally winning and on the threshold of finally winning hockey’s ultimate prize he is finally starting to be fully appreciated for it.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.