WASHINGTON-They made quite a pair late Saturday night, sitting at the interview podium after arguably the biggest win in Washington Capitals franchise history.
Braden Holtby, the stoic goaltender whom coach Barry Trotz has repeatedly called “the backbone of our team,” had followed up Wednesday night’s miraculous save with a strong performance in the Capitals’ 3–1 victory over Vegas in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final. Holtby saved 21 of the 22 shots he faced, and even after an ill-timed giveaway that handed the Golden Knights their only goal, it was impossible to tell by his poker face if his team was winning or losing.
If Holtby represents the spine, Ovechkin is the Capitals’ heart. He’s waited 13 long seasons for this chance, and as he rises to the occasion and rewrites his legacy, he seems to be having the time of his life.
“It’s the Stanley Cup final,” Ovechkin said. “What are you gonna do? It’s big for everybody.”
True, but it’s biggest for Ovechkin. He’s borne the brunt of more than a decade’s worth of spring disappointment, as the Capitals three times failed to get out of the second round after posting the NHL’s best regular-season record. Only 18 men in NHL history have scored more goals than Ovechkin’s 607, but he’s never been considered a two-way player like his chief rival, Sidney Crosby.
It wasn’t stunning that Ovechkin netted the first goal of Game 3 early in the second period, his 14th of these playoffs. But the way he scored was notable. Instead of loitering in “his office” at the left point, he got involved in the scrum in front of the net and dove to push a rebound past Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
“I think it set the right tone in the first playoff victory at home in the final, Alex would score the first goal,” Trotz said. “It’s a little poetic justice, if you will, for all the tough times he’s been through.”
Later, Ovechkin gave up his body to block former teammate Nate Schmidt’s shot to help preserve the win and show he’s not above doing the dirty work as he approaches age 33. He seems to sense that this may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and he doesn’t appear to want to waste it.
“It’s huge,” said teammate Devante Smith-Pelly, who scored an insurance goal. “When you see your leader doing those things, it makes everyone want to do the same.”
Added Trotz: “As a coach, you want your top player to set the tone, and he did with his intensity, his physicality, all the details. He blocked shots, he got pucks out, all the things that go along with winning. And he’s scoring at a massive rate. The whole team is going to follow.”
They follow his emotions as well. For much of his career, Ovechkin’s default expression was a scowl. Now, he’s a happily married man who is two wins away from cementing his spot among the NHL’s greatest players with a title. So what’s not to smile about?
“He’s on another level,” defenseman John Carlson said. “Everyone kind of reacts to stuff differently, and he’s always been that brash celebrator. It’s great to see, and he’s as engaged as anyone could ever be, I think. It shows in his game, and it shows in the effect that it has on the rest of us.”
Ovechkin exulted, as usual, after his second-period goal Saturday night. But he was just as animated after fellow Russian Evgeny Kutznetsov beat Fleury later in the period for a 2–0 lead.
“He’s an emotional guy,” Smith-Pelly said. “He wears it on his sleeve. It’s fun to watch.”
Of course, winning is infinitely more enjoyable than losing. Ovechkin has enjoyed his share of individual and team regular-season success, but this is his chance to shine (and grin). Monday’s Game 4 could put him on the threshold of sheer ecstasy.
“Right now, it’s just automatic,” Ovechkin said. “You just get excited.... You just want to give your emotions to your teammates, and to yourself as well.”