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From Great 8 to Great Captain

What made it possible for Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals to finally win the Stanley Cup after so many failed attempts?

The dust has settled and the Washington Capitals have won their first Stanley Cup ever. Alex Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe and after years and years of doubt that curse seems to have been lifted. So why did this Ovi win the cup? Why not Ovi and the Caps from past years when they dominated the league and won the Presidents Trophy on multiple occasions?

Ovi was drafted first overall in 2004 but we did not get to see him play that season do to the NHL lockout. However, in 2005 he won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year and started the rivalry between him and Sid the Kid that would dominate the league for years to come. In his first five seasons, he did not have less than a 92-point season and scored at least 50 goals four out of five of those years. In the same timeline, he won two Hart Trophies, three Ted Lindsay awards, two Rocket Richards and an Art Ross along with the Caps winning the Presidents Trophy more than once. So, again, why could the Caps not make it past the second round of the playoffs?

Ovechkin Wasn’t a Leader Yet

As a Canadian I love Don Cherry, as a hockey fan, I can’t handle him. He had a beef with Ovi’s 50th-goal celebration warming his hands on a hot stick. I laughed when Ovi said he knew it would piss Cherry off but I do think it showed the issue. Ovi was not a leader yet. He loved those induvial awards. And why not? When you are as deadly a goal scorer why not? If you are to compare him and Sid at this point though Sid has taken his team to the finals once and then won it the next year. One year even going through Ovi and the Caps.

During those first years, Ovi was fun to watch. As he conducted his interviews he would crack jokes and his teammates and coaches would say he was a good-hearted player not actually meaning to offend with shenaigans like the burning stick incident. As a fan, I have to say after this though something seemed to change. His point production dropped, the fact was his entertainment value also went way down. His often fun interviews became stale and in my opinion grumpy. I have an opinion and I might be wrong but I think moody Ovi was growing Ovi. It is sad to say a person’s career is on the downswing at 30 but in pro hockey, it might have been. (I don’t feel overly bad I mean when his 13 year contract for $124 million is up I am sure he will be doing alright for himself.)

Something in Ovechkin Changed

But as this gloomy Ovi took over and he struggled to crack 80 points in a season something good did happen. The Caps started dominating. Ovi himself became a much more well-rounded player. The young Ovi that posted a 112 pt season wasn’t known for his backcheck, he was not a two way player. Even now he will never win the Selke Award for his defense but people actually noticed him on the back end. The Caps won back-to-back Presidents Trophies in 2015/16 and 2016/17. It seemed like the Great 8 should finally get a cup.

He didn’t, they didn’t.

Arguably it was Matt Murray — someone who should have been considered for the Conn Smythe that year — who stopped them in 2015/16. Instead, for the Capitals, it was back-to-back seasons of being the best in the league and back-to-back eliminations in the second round. Yes, both years it was to the team that went on to win Lord Stanley but I would think it had to sting a little to lose to Crosby and watch him win his second and third cups.

The Difference?

So what was different this year? I think the pressure was. The simple fact I don’t think anyone believed they could do it. On the years they had been the best they had fizzled out and to do it this year there was a good chance it would be in the second round against the Penguins again. Unlike other years, the Capitals weren’t favoured to win. People wanted the kids in Toronto to win. They figured Tampa or even the Penguins yet again might come from the East but the Caps I think after failing so often, were written off.

Washington started on a bad note going down 2-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets but battled back four-straight to win the round. Then they moved on to a waiting Penguins team who had won 10 out of the 11 times these teams met in playoffs. The Penguins took Game 1 but the Caps won Games 2 and 3 only to have the Penguins tie it up. Here is where Ovi shows he isn’t just a flashy goal scorer anymore. There was no give up, on the bench he was animated. Pregames attempting to rile the boys up and get that win. It paid off, the Caps would win the next two and finally defeat the Pens for the first time in the Ovi era.

The Eastern Finals had to be the scariest for the Caps at any point these playoffs. After dominating the first two games the Lightning won three in a row. One win away from elimination again we did not see the usual give up or flop from the Caps or Ovi that we all expect. In fact, Braden Holtby stepped up in a huge way with back-to-back shutouts putting the Caps in the Finals for the first time in 20 years.

The Caps Became a Team

Hockey is a team sport.  The Caps are a team, every one of them stepped up for the Finals. I am not even talking the big guns but Devante Smith-Pelley had a couple beauty goals. Orlov scored for the first time in 200 games; the whole team wanted it. You watch those games though, watch that bench and Ovi is back to the way he was years ago. An excited little kid, super pumped to be playing hockey and this time for its biggest prize. On the ice, he has become the leader they needed. We even saw him block shots! This was rewarded with a 4 – 1 series win and the first cup in Caps history.

For me, the biggest difference in young Ovi to the captain he is now was the Conn Smythe. First off, should he have won it? Hard to say, I could have given it to at least three different guys and been happy any of them deserved it but the point is Ovi won and was very “oh well” about the whole thing. It’s a trophy he had never won. It is an MVP award but it didn’t seem to matter, all he wanted was that Stanley Cup. I can’t speak to what they dream of as little boys in Russia but you could tell he was itching to live out many Canadian boys fantasies and skate around that rink with the Cup held high. Finally, 13 years later he was a winner and a leader.

Besides all that, Ovi is back to being that young entertaining guy we saw years ago. If you are on any social media I am sure you have seen him doing kegs stands from the cup. Sleeping with it. Dancing in a club. Passed out on a plane or taking a selfie with it and the Conn Smythe. Grinning all the while. Also after they won the cup his wife came forward saying she was pregnant, so I would say at least until next season he is sitting on top of the world and has finally cemented himself as not only one of the best goal scorers of all time but also a cup winning captain.


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