LAS VEGAS — During Alex Ovechkin’s first year in the NHL he was swimming at the house of Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. As the boss and his newly-drafted future superstar hung out, Leonsis told Ovechkin that one day they would be celebrating a Stanley Cup together.
Ovechkin was still new to the league, didn’t quite know the entire organization just yet, but he shared that dream with Leonsis. Little did they know it would take nearly 15 years from Ovechkin’s draft day for it to finally become a reality.
“I knew he wants it so bad and this organization wants it so bad. It’s nice to be part of it,” Ovechkin said. “It’s nice to be in this organization, all 13 years or 14, whatever. It was a tough time, but we fight through it and we get results.”
From 2007, when Ovechkin’s Capitals first made the playoffs, through 2017, they won three Presidents’ Trophies and seven division titles. But the most important number was zero, as in the number of times they advanced beyond the second round. Six times they were ousted by either the New York Rangers or Pittsburgh Penguins. Twice they blew 3-1 series leads. It became an inevitability: Regular season success would lead to crushing playoff defeat.
The lack of success and the burden to carry the Capitals to a championship would fall on Ovechkin’s shoulders. He was the superstar. He was the one making the most money. The team’s biggest rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, won three Cups since 2005-06, when Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby entered the league. As the expectations soared, the disappointments kept piling up until this season when many gave up hope of them ever winning.
This was a different season, for sure. The Capitals cruised to another division title. Ovechkin scored 49 goals. But the pressure wasn’t there entering the postseason. The Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and even the surprising Vegas Golden Knights were the sexy picks out of the Western Conference, while some backed the Penguins for a three-peat or even the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The only expectation some had with the Capitals was that they would fail again. When they fell behind 0-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, a familiar feeling was creeping in. But this team didn’t wilt facing the task of regrouping and pulling off a comeback. Ovechkin, with help from Evgeny Kuznetsov, helped carry the team offensively and change a lot of narratives.
“I think there were a lot of series where maybe Washington got eliminated, [Ovechkin] had great series,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who joined the Capitals from the Penguins in 2014. “He probably took the brunt of the criticism just because he’s the captain and the highest paid guy. I think a lot of guys feel for him in that situation. If you watched the reaction of his teammates when he got the Cup, that speaks volumes about how guys feel about him. He’s a very unique captain — probably never find a guy like him. But he’s a guy who leads in a very unique way, but he definitely pulls guys into the fight.”
The desire to do everything possible to win was evident in every Ovechkin shift this postseason. When he wasn’t scoring one of his 15 goals, he was playing a committed defensive game, even dropping down to block shots. Whatever it took. Every goal, even if it didn’t come off his stick, resulted in a release of emotion never seen before — emotions that grew stronger and stronger as the win totals moved toward that special No. 16.
“When your captain is doing everything it takes, guys follow the leader. He’s not the only one,” said defenseman John Carlson. “There’s plenty of others that have stepped up and done amazing things at big points in time. But when your leaders does those things, it gives a huge morale boost to the rest of us and we all want to win for each other.”
“It’s a huge statement by him. This is one of his better years that he’s played overall,” said Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. “I think he’s played a better team game the whole year. He’s been more of a leader the whole year. You see him in the playoffs this year, he’s our best player — blocking shots, playing good in the D-zone, playing good in the neutral zone. When he’s doing them it makes everyone else want to do them, too.”
Now the NHL story of Alex Ovechkin is now complete. He has a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup to go along with his three Hart Trophies, three Ted Lindsay Awards and seven Rocket Richard Trophies. There’s no more He’s a great player, but… to follow him around for the rest of his career, one that will see plenty of records shattered and maybe even another title.
Ovechkin wanted this victory for himself and for his team. It’s been a long road to get there and it showed each time he raised the Cup over his head and showed off that big, toothless smile.
The weight is off his shoulders. He’s a Stanley Cup champion.
“It’s even better. It’s just like a dream,” said Ovechkin. “It was a hard, long season. We fight through it. We worked so hard through all the years and we were together. It was a whole one team, stick with the system and it doesn’t matter what happened, even after the [second] period, we knew we just have to push it and get the result done. That’s it.
“I can’t explain the way I feel. It’s unbelievable.”