It’s fitting that the last Alex Ovechkin goal on this Capitals Stanley Cup run came at the end of an opportunity he created for himself. Ovechkin has had good teammates during his years with the Capitals, but he’s always been hockey’s most efficient one-man wrecking crew. He’s the guy who scores more goals than anyone else, of course. But he’s also the guy who drives play more than anyone else by shooting with unprecedented frequency. He puts defensemen on their heels and makes goaltenders pray his shots somehow hit them.
So it was in the second period against the Golden Knights on Thursday. Halfway through the frame, Ovechkin darted into the Vegas zone and forced the slow-footed Brayden McNabb to trip him to prevent a scoring chance. Twenty-three seconds later, on the power play he generated, Ovechkin set up to Marc-Andre Fleury’s right and blasted a one-timer past him, finishing a pass from Nicklas Backstrom like he had so many times before.
Ovechkin has always been an anomaly. Hockey really is the ultimate team sport. The best players can’t dictate a whole game like LeBron James or Tom Brady can. The pace is too fast, and the rink is too small. But Ovechkin’s one of the few players who can lock in and decide how a game will unfold for the roughly two-fifths of it he’s on the ice.
Of course, it was the Capitals’ third and fourth lines that scored the two goals in the third period that clinched the Cup. That’s hockey, too. But the captain made his mark. His 15 goals were a team playoff record. So was his one Conn Smythe Trophy, come to think of it.
Ovechkin has been an all-world superstar for years. An added benefit of this Cup is that specific types of hockey people might stop tearing him down.
And, man, have there been a lot of those people over the years. So as not to pick on anyone in particular, let’s run through a couple of breeds of Ovechkin skeptics:
- Every sports fan who invalidates every elite athlete’s accomplishments if that player hasn’t won a championship in his or her league. The people who shout “RINGS” in every debate.
- North American TV analysts who have for years tagged Ovechkin as soft and not a guy who plays the game the right way, like your favorite Canadian or U.S.-born player does.
- People who have always been fixated only on comparing Ovechkin to Sidney Crosby, his most notable personal rival, who got to the Cup three times before him.
- Even some Russian fans and media who haven’t been pleased with the national team’s failure to win big events with Ovechkin leading the way. The team’s depth was far more at fault than Ovechkin for Russia not winning various pre-2018 Olympic competitions.
There are probably more. All of them have been unfair to Ovechkin over the years in their own ways. Even the most sublime individual talent can go through tons of playoff failure in a sport as random as hockey. Ovechkin’s Capitals have known plenty of that failure.
But, holy hell, was it ever dumb to pin that on the captain. Since Ovechkin’s rookie season, he’s been the league’s most efficient playoff goal-scorer by miles. He has scored better than 0.6 goals per playoff game, and nobody else who’s played in at least 50 playoff games is higher than 0.52. Those numbers sound small, but that’s hockey — again. Scoring goals is hard, and scoring them in the playoffs, when referees swallow their whistles, is harder.
The goals are enough, but Ovechkin has shown he’s more than a scorer.
I keep thinking about something Barry Trotz, his head coach, told me during the Eastern Conference Final. The Capitals had just lost Game 4 to the Lightning, what will go down as one of the few forgettable nights on this memorable run. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this absurd backhanded saucer pass Ovechkin had made to spring Evgeny Kuznetsov on a breakaway. His teammate on the Russian national team finished the play beautifully:
You can’t do it better than that.
“Obviously, everybody thinks of Alex as a goal-scorer and a shooter,” Trotz said. “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.”
He had 12 playoff assists to go with his 15 goals. In the Final, he was 12th among all skaters with five blocked shots in five games. He wasn’t scared to hurl himself in front of slap-shots.
“It’s the Stanley Cup Final,” Ovechkin said. “What are you gonna do?”
Now, he’s checked the last major box in his NHL career.
People who wanted to denigrate this once-in-a-generation player were able to do it anyway, because even if “He doesn’t have a Cup!” is a lazy fallback, it can be an effective one.
That’s gone now. There is nothing else to say about Alex Ovechkin.