- - Thursday, May 24, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Barry Trotz sounded the alarm for Alex Ovechkin two years ago following the Washington Capitals exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs by the familiar hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“Your shelf life in the National Hockey League, if you’re a top player, is 10,12 years,” the Capitals coach said. “And so, when you don’t go that far, the window sort of seems like it closes, and if you haven’t gotten past that, it gets frustrating. It does.

“There’s no question — the sense of mortality sets in.”

If you are looking for reasons why this Ovechkin team has been the one to break through finally, getting beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and now, coming off their Game 7 win over Tampa Wednesday night, their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in the Ovechkin era, look no further than the great 8’s gray hair.

Alex Ovechkin got old. And he got wise — finally.

Braden Holtby held the Capitals’ future in his hands and glove, and the goaltender delivered, with two straight shutouts, the second the 4-0 Game 7 clincher against the Lightning. As is the case with nearly every successful NHL playoff team, that success often depends on who is in the net.

“When he made his big save, the energy on the bench is unbelievable, you know?” Ovechkin said, describing Holtby’s play in Game 7. “You just don’t want to give up, again, chances … he was up there and he was a wall. That’s what we need from him.”

What they need also, though, is the greatness of Ovechkin to shine through at the biggest moments. He has had great playoff moments, but rarely has he had a great playoff — until now. Until his hair began to show his age, perhaps beyond his 32 years. Until his priorities changed.

That’s been one of the themes we’ve heard coming out of the Capitals locker room much of this postseason. We heard it from Trotz after the final regular season game when he talked about how team goals had become more important to Ovechkin at this stage in his career.

And we heard it again after the Game 7 win when Trotz said he met with Ovechkin during an off-season trip to Russia. “We talked about a couple of things, redefining himself a little bit,” he said.

Now, if we break that down, it would indicate that previously the Capitals had an Ovechkin problem — a superstar team captain who fell short in those responsibilities when it counted the most. I mean, if Ovechkin has changed, matured — then what did he change from? How did he mature?

This team is not as talented as many of the Capitals teams that suffered through early playoff exits — when Ovechkin was younger, quicker, perhaps, like many of us, consumed by his own greatness and not sure how to use it to lift those around him when they needed it the most.

Holtby said as much when he spoke to reporters after Wednesday night’s win.

“I think our group here really understands what it means to be a team and how to win,” he said. “Maybe in the past we’ve had more skill or been better on paper or whatever. But this team everyone knows their role and everyone wants to pitch in and everyone is comfortable with each other. I haven’t been on a team like this where in any situation we’re confident and confident in each other. Don’t get down on each other. It’s a strong group and that’s extremely hard to come by and something that we’re going need to have going forward to be our best and be a strong team.”

No one was mentioned by name, but it’s not hard to read between the lines and know that he is talking about the one player who has set the tone for this franchise since he arrived 13 years ago, when Ovechkin probably felt he would play forever.

Now, though, the mortality that Trotz spoke of two years ago is looking him in the mirror. There was only one way to redefine himself, and he is doing it now. He did it Wednesday night, when he scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal with just over a minute gone in the first period.

“I think everybody is happy, but we still have unfinished, you know what I mean?” Ovechkin said after the game … I think we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. We understand what it has to take to be in the final.”

Finally.

Thom Loverro’s weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” is available Wednesdays on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.


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