“With the First Pick of the 2004 NHL Draft, the Washington Capitals select: Alexander Ovechkin.” Alexander the Great, Ovie, the greatest hockey player I’ve seen, not better than Crosby, and no rings. Ovechkin has heard it all over the years. 14 years of high rolling success followed by excruciating heartbreaks that seem to work on a schedule. Almost like clockwork, the bell tolls for Alex and the Caps come NHL playoff time. With Ovechkin’s first Stanley Cup appearance finally here, this series could define Ovechkin’s entire career as one of the greatest to ever put on skates; But, it could also define Ovechkin as one of the greatest to have not won a ring. Here in sports, individual accomplishments mean a lot. They can get you into Hall of Fames, All Star games, extreme adoration from the fans of the sport or the people of your city. Full respect can be hard to attain however without a Championship to staple it all together.
All sports have a list of greats who never won a ring. In football, some greats include Dan Marino, Earl Campbell, and Randy Moss. In basketball, so many greats like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, and John Stockton were robbed of rings from the Bulls’ dominance in the 90s. Hockey has the revered Marcel Dionne who posted 8 100+ point seasons and never caught the elusive Stanley Cup. As much as those guys mean to their sports, they can never truly be in conversation for the GOAT status because one thing isn’t on their resume. All the greatest have at least one championship and the best of the best have even more. Michael Jordan, 6 rings. Joe Montana, 4 rings. Wayne Gretzky, 4 cups. All are in conversation, or are unanimously revered as the greatest to play their game. If these same players had no rings, they would not even be in the discussion for the greatest of all time. Ovechkin is fast approaching this at his age 32 season and the other teammates not getting any older or better.
Ovechkin has plenty of shelves in his trophy room. Ovechkin made his presence known winning the Calder Memorial Trophy that’s presented to rookie of the year. This was one of the times Ovechkin beat out Crosby for a piece of hardware. Getting an individual accolade can be sweet against a future longtime foe. Ovechkin would then follow that up with a 2007 year that brought home a fruit basket of individual awards that included: The Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy (Player who scores most goals in a single season), the Art Ross trophy (Player with the most points in the season), the Ted Lindsey award (The NHL Players’ Association pick for MVP) and the Hart Memorial Trophy given to the NHL’s Most Valuable Player.
This was only the beginning of his dominance because Ovechkin would lead the league in goals scored 6 more times and bring his “Rocket” Richard trophy total to seven. Ovechkin would also win two more Ted Lindsey awards and two more Hart Memorial Trophies. Bringing Ovechkin’s total up to 15 individual trophies. This doesn’t even include his 1st team All Star appearances (7), his 2nd team All Star appearances (4) and his All-Rookie team appearance.
Based off regular season accomplishments alone, Ovechkin stands in ELITE company and has a spot in the Hall of Fame ready from him. Especially since he’s already in the top 20 of goals scored ALL TIME. The name Alexander the Great doesn’t come without proof of truly being a once-in-a-generation player, but for all of the individual achievements, there’s been a heavy toll to pay elsewhere.
The playoff woes began during the 07-08 seasons when Backstrom and Ovechkin totaled almost 180 points together and were beat by a good Philadelphia Flyers team in the first round. This loss wasn’t the absolute worst due to the youth of the team, and it had been the first playoff berth in years. However, it was the beginning of many woes to follow and set a trend for first-round exits. In 2008-2009, the first Penguins-Caps series started off with a 2-0 Caps lead in the series after a 7-game series against the Rangers. The Penguins came back and won in a 7-game series against Ovechkin’s Capitals.
More shock was to continue when the Caps won the President’s Trophy (The trophy for the team in hockey with the most regular season points) and then lost in the opening round to the wildcard Montreal Canadiens. The Capitals would lose again the next year to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the playoffs in 2010-2011. The Capitals then fired their coach Boudreau before the postseason and got kicked out in the first round in the playoffs again.
Two years had passed before the Capitals returned to the postseason and had even managed to get out of the first round under a new head coach who possessed a defense-heavy mentality. However, the Capitals found another way to choke when they lost a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers. For those keeping track at home, that’s a 3-6 playoff series Win-Loss record without a Conference Finals appearance. So many coming when the Caps had won the President’s Trophy, and made trades and none were their year. However, the worst was yet to come.
The biggest monkey on Ovechkin’s back might not even be the playoff woes, but something that has been with him from a rookie and only worsens the longer he goes without a single cup: Sidney Crosby. Destined to be compared as consecutive number overall picks with league changing talent, Ovechkin has found little success against his foe on and off the ice. It all started in Junior World Championships when Ovechkin got injured and watched the young Crosby tear apart his team for the gold medal. As previously stated, the Penguins also got the jump on Ovechkin’s Capitals in 2010 en route to Sid Crosby’s first Stanley Cup victory. Meanwhile, Ovechkin was left with sour taste of defeat. One would say Ovechkin got used to Crosby’s dish of defeat as Ovechkin proceeded to lose to him in the 2010 Olympics, and watch Crosby win again in 2014 from the couch.
The Crosby comparisons would only grow further apart as in two consecutive playoffs, the Penguins bounced the Capitals in the second round one year, and the first round the next year. This brought Ovechkin’s playoff series record to a dismal 4-8, with no conference finals appearance yet. The salt in the wound? He would watch The Penguins and Sid Crosby be the first back-to-back winners since the Detroit Red Wings in the late nineties with Crosby getting back to back Conn Smythe trophies awarded to the Stanley Cup Finals’ MVP. All the while the critics grew louder.
For all the individual accolades Ovechkin has racked up, and the regular season success, he’d never be a Crosby. The Capitals’ window had fallen shut after losing to the Penguins two years in a row and DC sports will not make a conference championship through the Washington Capitals. Not through Ovechkin’s Capitals. The city had given up hope. Turning their back on their aging superstar. Though Ovechkin’s performances would match or even improve from his regular season averages no one cared simply because it didn’t show up in the win column. Ovechkin may be one of the best Capitals’ players ever, but he would never jump into one of the greatest of all time because a Cup simply eluded him.
The Road to The Cup
This Capitals team was never even considered to be a contender for the cup. They didn’t win the Presidents’ trophy this year, all their stars were just getting older and of course, it was the same old Caps. The Penguins were back in the playoffs and were on the verge of a three-peat and Washington’s window was over. Things looked all the same when they fell down 2-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs. Another early round exit, how typical. The Capitals turned the tide however, and rattled off four straight wins to advance to the second round.
This was the end of the road. The Pittsburgh Penguins awaited the Caps, and Crosby awaited Ovechkin. The second round was as far as Ovechkin knew how to go. For the third year in a row, the Capitals were going to lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Ovechkin would lose to Crosby. That was the status quo around here especially after the Penguins dominated the Flyers and looked like a legitimate threat to three-peat. When Pittsburgh won the first game, it seemed like clockwork that Ovechkin would be packing his bags after watching Crosby garner two points in the opening game.
Ovechkin had enough. No more losing to Crosby. At least, not this year. Ovechkin would score 3 goals and contribute more assists throughout the series and helped the Capitals dispatch the Penguins in 6. The Capitals had finally done it. They had been the first sports team in DC to make it to the Conference Finals (in any major league sport) in twenty years.
Now that Ovechkin had finally made it to the Conference final, was he really ready to take his team past the Tampa Bay Lightning who looked so dominant against the Bruins? Surely the magic was only enough to overcome Ovie’s foe in the second round but his Conference Finals debut wouldn’t also end in triumph… Could it?
Things certainly didn’t feel right. After jumping up 2-0 on the Lightning, they’d lose 3 in a row to fall behind in the series 3-2 and everyone felt that this was the Capitals’ team that we all as hockey fans had come to know: Choke Experts. The Capitals wanted to let everyone know of a message they had long since learned in many failed series, and made sure the Lightning didn’t count their eggs before they hatched, capturing two wins and forcing a game 7. The game that the Caps had experienced some success, but mostly pain, and heartbreak. Ovechkin scored almost within a minute of game 7 and let the city of DC know that this was not to be painful to watch and secured the Capitals, and his place in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Golden Knights in the Way
One Stanley Cup is more than what most NHL players could ever dream of. Even the greats can have a hard time grabbing this elusive prize that only one team gets every year. Ovechkin knows this better than anyone. He also knows that if he doesn’t win this cup, that he’ll never be revered as one of the best of all time. That he will be mocked for the postseason failures no matter how unjustified the claims may be. So, what’s left to do? Beat the greatest expansion team of all time (of any sport) and capture the Lord Stanley’s cup.
The Las Vegas Golden Knights not only surprised everyone with their dominant regular season play, but have also stomped through the Western Conference with only 3 losses in 3 series. Their starting line has scored 29 goals through just 15 games, Marc Andre-Fleury has had one of the greatest postseasons of all time for goaltending, and have won the hearts of all hockey fans. The Golden Knights hope to accomplish what no expansion team in North American sports has done: Win a Championship their first year.
The Knights are the type of odd juggernaut that only Ovechkin could draw in his first visit to the Stanley Cup. The order is tall, and not quite what was expected, but so hasn’t every other series so far for Ovechkin. For a team that no one expected to make it past the second round, the expectations are still high. This has been the best the Capitals have ever done, and fans should be quenched by that, but its more than the fans right now. Ovechkin isn’t just fighting for this a Stanley Cup, he’s fighting for his legacy.
Ovechkin won’t just be skating against the Golden Knights come this series, but against Crosby, against the DC sports curse, against disappointed fans, against Father Time, against critics, and against ghosts of hockey’s greats. For a Capitals-Knights series, it feels like Alex against the world; and he’s ready for it.