LAS VEGAS – There was a goal – a beauty – and one of historical significance for the greatest scorer of this generation. It was the first for Alex Ovechkin in the Stanley Cup Final after 665 potted elsewhere for the Washington Capitals over these last 13 years.
He’d truly arrived on the game’s biggest stage.
But what Barry Trotz highlighted after a series-tying 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights had nothing to do with the skill that has made Ovechkin famous the world over. The Capitals coach pointed to a will play late in the second period where his captain blocked a Colin Miller shot and dove to clear the puck from the defensive zone.
To him, it was yet one more reminder about the evolution in Ovechkin’s understanding of what it takes to win when the stakes are highest.
“Those little things are not little things anymore,” Trotz said Wednesday night. “They’re big things. They’re important. They’re the necessary things if you’re going to win. … When you’re an elite goal-scorer in this league and you’re a captain of the team and you’re doing that, trust me – the bench takes notice.
“Everybody takes notice.”
None of which is to distract from what Ovechkin does best. Goals win games and the Capitals have won a ton over the years because of his unique ability to put the puck in the net.
In fact, his go-ahead marker in Game 2 against the Golden Knights offered a pretty good reminder about what makes him special. Working on the power play, Ovechkin found a soft spot in coverage a little lower in the zone than where he normally sets up shop. And when Lars Eller’s pass came across the top of the crease, he was able to get a quick shot off despite the fact it was in tight to his body.
Like a top receiver in football who can haul in any pass that comes within five yards of him, Ovechkin doesn’t need the puck to be placed perfectly for him to turn it into a scoring opportunity. It’s allowed him to shoot with more volume than his contemporaries and score a staggering 196 more regular-season goals than anybody else since he entered the NHL in 2005.
“He has that ability to see past the block, see past the goalie. Some of the better goal scorers in this league don’t see goalies, they just see empty spots,” said Trotz. “Guys that aren’t goal scorers, they see the goalie all the time. I think Alex has that ability to look beyond what’s there and obviously his release.
“Goaltenders will tell you, trying to read the puck coming off his stick is very, very difficult.”
Of course, a big part of Ovechkin’s story is trying to vanquish the ghost of playoff failures past. The look of pure joy on his face when Washington finally got past Pittsburgh in the second round stands as one of the enduring images of these playoffs.
This is a player who has done a ton of winning – with seven Rocket Richard Trophies, three Hart Trophies, three Ted Lindsay Awards and a Calder Trophy from a rookie season shared with Sidney Crosby already in his case – but hasn’t yet won the big one.
The shiny silver one he wants most.
Beneath the happy-go-lucky exterior, Ovechkin is a prideful guy. It’s haunted him. But at age 32 he’s found a renewed focus, and learned to let go of thoughts that may previously have held him back, and just be.
Ovechkin had a quiet opening game in this Stanley Cup Final with just two shots – both of which came on the same sequence – but he responded Wednesday with a more engaged Game 2 that included five registered hits plus the goal and blocked shot.
“I think as soon as you step on the ice, the pressure and the nerves just goes away,” he said. “You don’t have to think about anything: only the puck, only the plays, only the score goals, like blocking shots, the physical game. All the small details.”
There’s a case to be made that this may have been the second-best season of Ovechkin’s Hall of Fame career. His piece de resistance was the ridiculous 65-goal, 112-point campaign in 2007-08. But this was a year where the Capitals leaned more heavily on him than ever after watching 48 goals walk out the door with the departures of Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams.
Ovechkin responded by scoring 49 himself – 16 more than the previous season – and 28 of which came at 5-on-5, his highest total in nine years. It was impressive stuff from a guy on the wrong side of his window for peak performance.
It’s continued right into the playoffs where Ovechkin now has a career-best 13 goals and 24 points.
With the Cup Final now shifting to Washington for Game 3 on Saturday, he’s arriving home for a night a long time in the making. They’ve waited two decades to see a game this big at Capital One Arena. That the Capitals might have to play it without injured centre Evgeny Kuznetsov only adds to the pressure on Ovechkin to deliver.
Except those close to him insist he won’t be viewing it that way.
“I sense a freedom. I sense a guy that’s very focused, a guy that’s on a little bit of a mission, and it’s good,” said Trotz. “But I think more than anything, it’s the freeness of the playoffs. He’s very, very comfortable on this stage. He’s very comfortable in what he’s doing. He’s very comfortable within our group.
“And he’s very comfortable in pushing forward and not worrying about anything else.”
All and all, that’s an ideal place to be. Because it might be now or never.