For the first time in his career, Alex Ovechkin is playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Vegas Golden Knights are all that stands in his and the Capitals’ way. If the Capitals win the first Cup in their history, it’ll largely be thanks to the captain who’s still driving them.
The goal Ovechkin scored 62 seconds into Game 7 against the Lightning was the same goal he’s scored hundreds of times. Of all the ways this generation’s best scorer has beaten goaltenders over the last 13 years, no method has been more common than Ovechkin opening up in or above the left faceoff circle, getting a pass from across the ice, and viciously one-timing it past some poor goalie who barely had a chance.
Everyone on the ice knew what was happening before it happened. Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, Ovechkin’s teammate on the Russian national team, definitely knew. It didn’t matter, because an Ovechkin slapper is one of the few things in hockey that leaves a team almost entirely at its mercy. The other team has to hope it hits something, ideally a stick and not a defender’s body, or that Ovechkin misses the net or shoots into the goalie’s logo.
His devastating shot is the biggest reason Ovechkin has scored 196 more regular-season goals than anyone else since entering the league in 2005. When the puck comes to him, he’s still the most dangerous man in the game. Now he’ll play in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time. More goals are coming, but what’s set Ovechkin apart during the Capitals’ deepest playoff run in 20 years isn’t just the goals. It’s his complete, well-rounded game.
Ovechkin has always had a rep as a shooter first. He does shoot a ton, but this playoff run should lay plain how much more he is than that.
These things are simultaneously true:
- Ovechkin has led the NHL in shots on goal in five of the last six years. Since his rookie season, he’s registered 4,896 shots in the regular season. That’s 1,535 shots more than anyone else, a rate of about 4.9 per game.
- Ovechkin is 12th in the league in assists since his rookie year, with 515. He’s third among wingers, just a hair behind Daniel Sedin and Patrick Kane.
It would be an exaggeration to call Ovechkin one of the best passers of his time. But he’s been a playmaker for others almost as much as he’s been one for himself. His wicked shot turns into a rebound most of the times it gets stopped. And in this playoff run, he’s set up massive goal after massive goal with sublime plays.
The Capitals won Game 5 of the second round against their longtime foil, the Penguins, because Ovechkin drew the defense to him and set up Jakub Vrana for a tap-in:
The winning goal in the clinching Game 6 of that series came off a smooth Ovechkin pass to spring Evgeny Kuznetsov on a breakaway in overtime:
And this pass Ovechkin used to set up Kuznetsov in Game 4 against the Lightning is the most picturesque backhand saucer pass that has ever been made:
“Obviously, everybody thinks of Alex as a goal-scorer and a shooter,” his head coach, Barry Trotz, said during the conference final, the same night as that last pass above. “One thing that I was surprised when I came here a number of years ago: how well he makes plays. He’s a great passer. He doesn’t get enough credit for that, and he has good vision. He sees things. But everybody thinks he’s just a shooter. He’s more than that. He takes what’s given. You take away his shot, he’s gonna make some real good offensive plays with a pass or deception, whatever. He sees the ice very well. Surprisingly. When I first got here, I thought he might just have a one-track mind, shoot all the time, but he can make some plays.”
Ovechkin is second in the playoffs in points (22) and tied for 15th in assists (10). The only guy ahead of him in the points race is his teammate Kuznetsov.
These playoffs should eliminate one other fiction about Ovechkin, too.
In some musty corners of the hockey world, an idea has persisted that Ovechkin can’t win big games. He’s had to contend with frequent comparisons to Sidney Crosby, the Penguins captain who — until this year — had always beaten Ovechkin’s teams in the playoffs and Olympics. Ovechkin has been a clear top-three player in the world for almost a decade and a half, but he’s had to wear the Capitals’ inability to get over a hump around his neck.
The idea was always absurd. Hockey’s not like basketball or even football, where one brilliant player can bend the whole game to his well. The best forwards only play a third of every game, and they’re heavily reliant on help from others. If the LeBron James Cavaliers played hockey, they’d be the Connor McDavid Oilers, missing the playoffs altogether.
Ovechkin needed the right team around him to mount a run like this. With Kuznetsov riding shotgun with him on offense, secondary scoring popping up all over the lineup, and Braden Holtby leveling up in goal, he has the right time now. Ovechkin’s moment has arrived.