PITTSBURGH — It was different this time.
The second round did not end with Alex Ovechkin muttering regrets at a register barely above a whisper. Or with a Washington Capitals goalie contemplating the puck that went by him that caused an elimination. Or with any number of players sounding like the Stanley Cup Playoffs were a vampiric entity that sucked the lifeforce and optimism from them; witness T.J. Oshie in 2017, after the Pittsburgh Penguins shut them out in Game 7: “Unfortunately for me and my career and for a lot of these guys, you almost wonder how much disappointment you have to put yourself through before you can find a way to get the job done.”
The answer: 20 years of disappointment as a franchise, 10 years of disappointment for Alex Ovechkin. For the first time since 1998, the Capitals are in the Eastern Conference Final. For the first time in his career, Ovechkin’s team has advanced to a conference championship round, cancelling at least one criticism of the star’s otherwise fabled career.
“It’s almost embarrassing that it’s taken this long to get past it,” said owner Ted Leonsis, who since 2005 has watched Ovechkin’s electrifying play load up the Capitals’ bandwagon with fans that were slowly being driven psychotic through annual playoff foibles.
Ovechkin has 15 points in 12 playoff games for Washington. Against the Penguins, he had seven points in six games, including the primary assist on Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s overtime series winner in Game 6 on Monday night.
“The people that are going to say something about Alex, I don’t think he worries about them,” said Leonsis. “Alex’s place in history is pretty set, and now he’s said that he doesn’t care about individual accolades, he wants to help the team win. I think you saw that. You saw how hard he hustled, he threw the big pass for the win. That’s a moment that says how he’s arrived as a player.”
Leonsis saying anything Capitals-related has “arrived” rips open one of several hundred self-inflicted wounds for this franchise, like references to the Winter Classic Champions banner or Martin Erat. It’s a reminder of the Capitals’ utter hubris through the years, one that treated the Stanley Cup as a logical end rather than something earned.
This was Leonsis in February 2010, on his personal blog:
“We have won 11 in a row. A franchise record. We are now first in the East. We are TEN POINTS ahead of New Jersey who is in second place. We are first in our division, 25 points ahead of our nearest competition. And we are now FIRST in the NHL with 82 points. We are first in the NHL in goals scored. And first in a bunch of other team and individual stats. For just today we have arrived. We don’t have miles to go before we sleep. We have arrived.”
Then they arrived in the 2010 playoffs, and the Capitals were eliminated by the No. 8-seeded Montreal Canadiens. Whoops.
Turns out they did have miles to go over the next eight years. Five semifinals losses, including consecutive defeats to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Another first-round loss to the New York Rangers. A disastrous season in which they missed the playoffs. Four different coaches. Countless incarnations of the roster. Miles and miles and miles they roamed, but that journey was the only path to this destination, to this actual arrival on a different level for the franchise.
“I’ve been with this group for now four years and a lot of the core of this group was around before that. They probably needed to go through some of this,” said coach Barry Trotz, who himself had coached 1,524 regular season games and 101 more in the playoffs without appearing in a conference final. “You continue to have these experiences good or bad, and we’ve had some bad ones, some painful ones and it’s made us stronger. I think toughness is more about getting knocked down, are you gonna get up again? The pain and suffering of the past that has made them stronger and more resilient and more determined and more committed and more focused. And we did it.”
It was different this time.
Other Capitals teams would have folded in Game 2, after dominating the Penguins for all of five minutes of Game 1 and then watching Pittsburgh rally to win in the third period. Or in Game 5, when the Penguins held the lead in Washington entering the third. Or in Game 6, as the game entered overtime and the Capitals knew they were one bad bounce away from going home for a Game 7, having gone 4-9 overall in them and 0-4 against Pittsburgh in franchise history.
That they didn’t fold is a testament to two factors: Their ability to forget the past, and their luck in having a slew of players that were never a part of it.
Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Alex Chiasson, Travis Boyd, Nathan Walker, Michal Kempny and Christian Djoos never played for the Capitals in the playoffs before this postseason, but all of them played in Game 6. That was partially a result of injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky, as well as Tom Wilson‘s suspension, but also part of a youth movement for the team in its supporting cast.
This roster turnover turned out to be a godsend. None of these players had experienced the creeping dread of a Capitals postseason. They were unburdened by the past. How ironic that after years of seeking championship shine with former champions ranging from Justin Williams to Troy Brouwer to Jason Arnott, the Capitals finally broke through with a bunch of imports from the Hershey Bears who are closer to a teething ring than a Stanley Cup one.
“That confidence is huge, and I believe it’s all about group inside the team. If young guys feel comfortable, they can make jokes, they can handle bad jokes or whatever and sometime they feel comfortable, that’s [a] great job for [the] leadership guys,” said Kuznetsov.
But the Capitals’ veterans also decided to unburden themselves. The air wasn’t filled with tension in Game 5, which was a pleasant atmospheric surprise in Capital One Arena. There wasn’t the “must-win” feeling surrounding Game 6, either. There was an eerie confidence. “We don’t look back, we look forward,” said Ovechkin.
I have a theory about this, actually: The Capitals were unburdened because they took a nihilistic approach to the season. Their general manager called last season the culmination of a three-year build, one in which they added a star piece at the trade deadline in defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. They went all-in. They folded. They fell short. They lost. No one was discussing Washington in terms of championship contention this season. The window seemed closed.
“Nobody expected we were going to be in this position before this season, in this game and in these playoffs,” said Ovechkin.
And so the Capitals were, perhaps for the first time since Ovechkin’s first trip to the playoffs 10 years ago, playing an un-examined season without the Stanley Cup dangling over them like a guillotine.
“We flew under the radar a little bit, and that took the pressure off,” said center Jay Beagle.
It was different this time.
The Penguins, the proverbial hammer to the Capitals’ nail, did not play up to their usual standards. “I don’t know, they were just the better team,” said goalie Matt Murray. “It’s an empty feeling. That’s the best way I can describe it, to be honest.”
Murray wasn’t as good as Braden Holtby, the Capitals netminder who now has a .926 save percentage in the playoffs to Murray’s .908. Phil Kessel didn’t have an even-strength point in the series. The Capitals started taking the body on Jake Guentzel in Game 5, and he didn’t register a point in the last two games of the series. Kris Letang was a liability on so many scoring plays that he’s now legally obligated to change his name to Brooks Orpik. Trotz outcoached Sullivan. The offseason depatures of Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen drained the Penguins of some of their playoff valor. The incredible amount of hockey they played in the last two seasons finally caught up with them, and the entire series was played under a flashing low fuel warning.
Date: June 22-23
Host city: Dallas, Texas
“I don’t wanna lie, it tastes a little bit better [to beat Pittsburgh],” said Kuznetsov.
Crosby, for all the magic he generated throughout the rest of the postseason and in the previous two Conn Smythe-winning campaigns, was ordinary in Game 6, registering one shot and officially having two giveaways, although the actual total was much larger than that.
“Yeah, it’s not a great feeling,” said Crosby.
“Thank God this happened,” said Ovechkin.
It was different this time.
Crosby has been the standard for playoff excellence, both in on-ice achievement and in intangibles. Ovechkin, meanwhile, has been the counterpoint: a player who can’t get it done, who doesn’t win the big game.
Rolling Stone listed him among the top 10 greatest chokers in sports history. He’s been portrayed as an egotist whose selfishness was fostered by the team. As late as 2014, one columnist suggested the Capitals would be better off if Ovechkin left for Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
“It’s always thrown in your face, everywhere you turn,” said Trotz. “I know it’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns, and he’s a great player in this league.”
But Ovechkin as a playoff liability has always been an erroneous invention of the Russo-phobic Canadian media. He has 105 points in 109 playoff games, including 54 goals. His 0.50 goals-per-playoff-game average since 2008 is the highest for any player with at least 60 games in that span. From a production standpoint, he’s a performer who extends his regular-season dominance into the postseason.
If there’s been a criticism of Ovechkin in the postseason, it’s when those goals have been scored. He’s the all-time leader in regular-season overtime goals, but has never scored one in the postseason. Entering the 2018 playoffs, Ovechkin had scored just 16 of his goals in the third period.
But this postseason, he’s scored three third-period goals, two of them coming against the Penguins, including the game-winner in Game 3 with 1:07 left in regulation, which was the latest in a postseason game Ovechkin had ever notched a goal. And while he’s never scored an overtime game-winner, he set up Kuznetsov’s to win the series against the Penguins with a slick little pass up the ice. He sets up Jakub Vrana’s game-winner in Game 5 with a strong move to the Penguins’ net that created the rebound.
“He’s always been good in playoffs, too. Takes a little bit of a beating every time. But has always been good in the playoffs, has always been our rock, our captain,” said Beagle.
I’ve covered Ovechkin since he was a rookie with a bad haircut who shocked the hockey world by beating out Crosby, the Canadian Chosen One, for the Calder Trophy in 2006. I’ve seen him react to every sort of playoff disappointment — Capitals fans are forever playing a game of “how will it happen this time?” — the same way: searching for answers, promising a different result next season. Each time I’ve wondered how anyone could do this annually, this brutal reckoning each spring where the best-case scenario is that you’re simply not good enough to win, and the worst-case scenario is that the Hockey Gods are conspiring against you in perpetuity.
“I told [Ovechkin] I was proud of him. That when the big moments arrived, he was there at the end in three games, three wins. He deserved it. I was very proud of him sticking with it,” said Leonsis.
I’ve covered Ovechkin long enough to see his mop turn gray, to see him cycle through 85 different teammates in the playoffs, to watch him mature from the rock star of his youth to the offensive maestro he is today. And in that time, I’ve never seen him play better than this in the playoffs. The way he’s so present on nearly every shift. The way he’s so dangerous on every offensive rush, and simply not loading the cannon from the “Ovi Spot” for goals. The way he exerted his will on this Penguins series, scoring 1:27 into Game 2, winning Game 3 and setting up the game-winner in both Games 5 and 6.
If I have one wish as a hockey fan, it’s that I don’t want to attend Ovechkin’s eventual Hall of Fame ceremony to celebrate the best goal scorer of his generation, only to have the conversation hijacked by someone bemoaning the fact that he never won a Stanley Cup.
He’s eight wins away from one now, closer than he’s ever been. The Lightning will be formidable. The Western Conference champion even more so, whether it’s Winnipeg or former Capitals GM David Poile and former Washington prospect Filip Forsberg‘s Nashville Predators, or former Capitals GM George McPhee’s Vegas Golden Knights, featuring Capitals killer Marc-Andre Fleury in goal — in case you were looking for the most compelling final-round narratives to cap a Washington championship journey.
But Alex Ovechkin hoisting the Stanley Cup is now a vision we can permit ourselves to consider. Because the Capitals overcame the Penguins for just the second time in 11 series. Because this team has shown an incredible amount of fortitude, more than ever before on an Ovechkin team. Because they’re playing for a conference title, rather than pondering what could have been and explaining away another failure. Because they knew they could.
“You know, the great thing about this is that all day we knew we were gonna win. I don’t know why,” said Trotz.
Oh, that’s an easy one:
Because it was different this time.