WASHINGTON – Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals have traversed their share of uncharted territory this postseason - none more significant than playing a Stanley Cup Final game in D.C. for the first time in two decades.
It only made sense that Ovechkin, the face of the franchise, would score the opening goal.
“He’s very passionate, as everyone knows,” coach Barry Trotz said following Washington's 3-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night. “It was the right thing in a playoff game, the first victory in the final, that Alex scores the first goal. Some poetic justice, if you will."
Ovechkin has always played the game with abandon, but since vanquishing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, freed from the failures and expectations of the past, he’s almost looked lighter, unburdened.
He scored 1:10 into the second period of the first June hockey game played in the nation’s capital since 1998, setting the tone for a decisive Game 3 win that gave the Caps a 2-1 series lead. Ovechkin threw the puck past Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as he tripped over Brayden McNabb and after Fleury was unable to control John Carlson’s point blast.
“He was possessed out there,” Carlson said. “That’s a good way to put it, I think. He’s playing with passion and energy and joy and he’s a one-man wrecking crew. How committed he is. It’s the best he’s played in my opinion.”
It’s hard to argue with that. Ovechkin’s 14 goals are tied with John Druce for the most in franchise history in a single postseason. By the end of the game, Ovechkin had 13 shot attempts and five shots on goal. When he didn’t have the puck, he was trying to get it back. He was throwing hits and blocking shots. Nothing different, really, from what he’s done throughout the course of the Capitals’ improbable run to the final.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
“I feel like Ovi always has about 10 shots on goal halfway through the game, or he has the attempts at least,” center Lars Eller said. “He was pumped up. Everybody was pumped up today. I’m not surprised he scores a goal. He always wants to score, badly. I haven’t seen a different Ovi today than I have lately. He’s been on. But he always shows a lot of emotion at home, and that’s right.”
When Evgeny Kuznetsov scored 11:40 later on an odd-man rush to put Washington up 2-0, the reaction from the bench was instant. Ovechkin thrusted his hands in the air, threw his head back, and screamed. Eller embraced him.
“It's just automatic,” Ovechkin said. “You just get excited. If Holts makes a huge save you can just see the whole bench jump and get excited. It's huge moments for us. You just want to give emotion to your teammates and to yourself as well.”
Ovechkin’s “hot-stick” celebrations seem like a lifetime ago, but he’s never shied away from expressing his joy, for himself or his teammates, whether on the ice or on the bench. The Ovechkin who's finally getting to play in a Cup final is the same one he’s always been - everyone’s just paying attention now.
“He’s on another level,” Eller 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. He always shows his emotions when he scores, but he’ll be just as happy for somebody else scoring. He wants to win as bad as anyone.”