- - Tuesday, May 8, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As Evgeny Kuznetsov took the pass from Alex Ovechkin and steamrolled toward Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray five minutes into overtime, Ovechkin said he thought to himself, “Just (blanking) score, please.”

He was pleading — almost begging — for his fellow Russian to save him.

Save him from a career defined as much by what he had not accomplished as by what he had. Save him from the baggage weighing him down — the burden of individual trophies and honors that only served to remind everyone of what was missing from his resume.

The distance between the Stanley Cup and the greatest goal scorer of his era seemed to grow each year with every early Capitals playoff exit.

Today, thanks to Kuznetsov and Monday night’s 2-1 Game 6 win over the Penguins, that gap finally is narrower, not wider.

For the first time in his 13-year career, Ovechkin will play in the Eastern Conference Finals — meaning he’s four victories over the Tampa Bay Lightning away from his shot at the Stanley Cup.

It’s closer than he’s ever been.

Ovechkin, who will turn 33 this September, has heard the clock ticking. He had a terrific season, leading the league in scoring for the seventh time with 49 goals, but he saw the faces changing around him — young faces, many much younger than Ovechkin, a reminder that he is closer to the end of his Hall of Fame career than the beginning.

There was not much more he could accomplish as an individual — three Hart trophies as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player, three Pearson trophies for the league’s most outstanding player, seven Rocket Richard pieces of hardware for the leading goal scorer, and on and on.

But every playoff failure took a little more shine off these trophies.

Ovechkin pretty much told his coach, Barry Trotz, as much as this season came to an end.

After Ovechkin came up short of the 50-goal mark in the last game, Trotz told reporters, “I talked to Ovi about this a few games back. He said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to get to 50. But the most important thing is that we’re ready for the playoffs.’ That’s really good on him … we talked about individual goals and team goals and right now he wants the team goal.”

When Kuznetsov scored that series-winning goal, you could see the look of relief first on Ovechkin’s face.

“Thank God this happened,” he told reporters in the post-game celebration.

“We move forward and now I can’t wait for when is going to be the next game and get ready for Tampa … I’ve never been in this position before and I’m looking forward (to it),” he said.

He probably thought he would be in this position many times in the early days. All things seemed possible in that first postseason — his third season in the league — when Washington lost in overtime 3-2 in Game 7 against Philadelphia in the 2008 first round.

Next year, they moved to the second round and faced Pittsburgh, and Ovechkin did battle with his legendary nemesis, Sidney Crosby, when both scored hat tricks in Washington’s 4-3 Game 2 victory, giving the Capitals a 2-0 lead in the series. They would lose 6-2 in Game 7 to Pittsburgh, who went on to win their first Stanley Cup in the Crosby era.

Surely Ovechkin’s turn would come. After all, he was just 23 and surrounded by young talent. The owner of the franchise, Ted Leonsis, had already predicted multiple Stanley Cups for Alex Ovechkin.

None of that happened. The celebration of Ovechkin has been limited to milestone career nights.

Now there is a chance for more.

“The situation is it doesn’t matter what happened,” Ovechkin said. “We have to stick together. We know it’s there. We just have to battle and we just have to fight through it. It’s a great feeling right now and we’re going forward.”

It’s been a long time coming.

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


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