ere’s a sample of what was said about Capitals star Alex Ovechkin after last season’s second-round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins:
“He just doesn’t have that body language that says, ‘I’m taking over.’ Normally he’s like an assassin.” — an anonymous coach to ESPN.
“He tries hard, I just don’t think he’s a heady enough hockey player to get it done in key moments.” — NBC analyst Mike Milbury.
“I really think it’s time for the Washington Capitals to look at moving Alex Ovechkin. I think it’s to that point, and it’s for his sake. … He can’t win in Washington right now.” — ESPN analyst Barry Melrose.
What a difference a year makes.
Ovechkin will play in the first Stanley Cup Final of his 13-year career Monday against the Vegas Golden Knights.
He can finally quiet his critics — if he hasn’t already — with a championship.
Ovechkin has been remarkable in these playoffs, recording a career-high 22 points (12 goals, 10 assists). Throughout this run, he’s conquered longtime foes and taken the Capitals to their first final in 20 years.
“You know what? I’m not at that age to listen to [the media] or listen to the fans to say, ‘This guy is bad’ or ‘This guy is bad,’” Ovechkin said. “If you listen to it, it goes in one ear and it goes out a different ear. It doesn’t stay in your mind.”
The thought of trading Ovechkin, however, wasn’t as blasphemous then as it might sound now. Even Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said they discussed changing the core internally, but concluded the Capitals were “so close to getting over the hump that we should give it another try.”
But the Capitals wanted more out of Ovechkin following a subpar 2016-17, when he saw a career-low in ice time. Coach Barry Trotz visited Ovechkin during the summer in Russia to go over expectations.
Ovechkin answered the call, finishing with 87 points (a league-leading 49 goals with 38 assists) — his best since the 2009-10 season.
“This is the most systematic he’s played throughout his career, in my mind,” MacLellan said. “I think he’s always scored goals. But the same for our team. Our commitment to team defense is as good as it’s ever been, and he’s been a big part of it, actually.”
No matter what happens in the series against Las Vegas, Trotz said Ovechkin — a three-time MVP in the league — can’t be defined by a Stanley Cup because of his influence on the sport. “He’s going to be a Hall of Famer, a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” he said.
MacLellan said Ovechkin “shouldered a lot of the burden” of Washington’s playoff failures.
But winning it all clearly would mean a lot to the Russian superstar. After the Capitals put away the Tampa Bay Lightning to win the Eastern Conference, Ovechkin was overwhelmed — embracing his longtime co-star Nicklas Backstrom with an emotional hug.
Ovechkin has relished the journey this postseason. Defenseman Matt Niskanen said getting past Pittsburgh was a relief for Ovechkin.
“He’s approaching the playoffs with a little more ease,” Trotz said. “It just freed him enough that he’s now got a chance to get the ultimate prize.”