With the stench of consecutive second-round defeats to the Pittsburgh Penguins still fresh, a depleted version of the Washington Capitals reconvened for the start of the 2017-18 season. Six regulars were gone from the previous year’s 55-win team. A cast of unproven rookies and veterans making the league minimum were brought in to fill the void. Few could have predicted what was ultimately in store for Alex Ovechkin & Co. eight months later.
On that first day of training camp a year ago, a visibly irritated Ovechkin practically pleaded with reporters. “We not going to be suck this year,” he insisted after a series of questions hinted otherwise. “We’re going to be fine.”
Of course, the Capitals were more than fine. And when the Stanley Cup champions returned this fall, Ovechkin fielded a new set of questions about Cup celebrations, keg stands and being a first-time father. There was also the hard-hitting inquiry about a new team motto this season. “Not suck back-to-back!” Ovechkin said, flashing his gap-toothed smile as belly laughs filled the air.
Yes, things are different in Washington. “It feels much better,” Ovechkin said. “I feel looser. Win a championship, it’s a whole different atmosphere.”
According to his teammates, Ovechkin looks lighter. Then again, that could just be from the 800-pound gorilla lifted off his back. Gone are the nagging questions about whether Ovechkin would ever win the Stanley Cup. Now the big question is, how does he follow it up? “It’s all about doing it again,” he said. “We had a taste of it, and it’s like a good restaurant. You go there, and then you want to go back. So for us right now, we don’t want to let go of that feeling. We want more.”
For the Capitals to achieve more, they’re going to need more of the same from Ovechkin. Even before he raised the Stanley Cup over his head, the 2017-18 season was one of the best of his career.
Thanks in part to a revamped training program that emphasized speed and conditioning as opposed to brute strength, a rejuvenated Ovechkin had a league-high 49 goals. It was his seventh career goal-scoring title, tying Bobby Hull for the NHL record. While the power-play goals from the left faceoff circle will seemingly always be there, Ovechkin rediscovered that scoring even-strength goals off the rush is also good for business. “When you see him get the puck in our defensive zone and start high-stepping and taking off down the ice, that’s when you know he’s buzzing,” said right winger T.J. Oshie. “Last year was the first time I saw him get that back in his game, and we’re seeing it again early this year.”
We had a taste of it, and it’s like a good restaurant. You go there, and then you want to go back
– Alexander Ovechkin
Ovechkin turned 33 in September. He hit the 1,000-game mark last April. By now, the miles on the hockey odometer should have already started to take their toll. Instead, Ovechkin is like a Ferrari that went in for an oil change and came back driving like new. He appears more invested than ever.
For all the videos of elaborate championship celebrations that made the rounds on social media, he went back to work once his day with the Cup in mid-July was complete. He again prioritized cardio, footwork and agility. “I’m fresh to do all different things,” Ovechkin said. “I can stay for a longer shift if the team needs it. I can be in a position where I know I’m going to win that battle 100 percent because I feel so good. It doesn’t matter which period it is. It’s a mentality.”
Ovechkin says this is a carryover from last season. As the year wore on, he barely tired. He points to his winning goal in Game 3 of Washington’s second-round series against Pittsburgh as an example.
With the contest tied at 3-3 late in the third period, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom teamed up for the game-winning goal with 1:07 remaining in regulation. The Capitals were pinned inside their own zone before Ovechkin joined Backstrom on an odd-man rush and eventually batted in his own rebound past Penguins goaltender Matt Murray. The goal capped an 86-second shift. “The most important thing for me is the conditioning,” said Ovechkin this fall. “Overall during the whole year, sometimes after a game, I felt like, ‘Did I even play? Am I even tired? Jesus, I want to play more.’ ”
Physically, he showed last season that he can still handle a heavy workload. But, mentally, after years of fatigue and stress started to creep in, Ovechkin is at ease. Hardly satisfied with just one Stanley Cup title, he’s ready for more. “It’s scary to think that he could be a more dominant player, but I think so,” said former Capitals goaltender Olie Kolzig, who now works with the team in player development. “Obviously he’s getting older, but the win has helped to rejuvenate him, no question.”
Kolzig’s final year as a Washington goalie coincided with Ovechkin’s maiden trip to the post-season in 2008. Back then, the Capitals were led by an uber-talented group of 20-somethings that could score goals in bunches. They were ‘The Greatest Show on Ice.’ Deep playoff runs were expected. For a decade, they never came. The criticism always did. “When you go through those disappointments,” Kolzig said, “and you’ve got all the expectations, and the team isn’t fulfilling them, and you’ve got people constantly comparing you to Sidney (Crosby), and you see what Sid’s done, and they doubt that you can do it, too, it can just wear on you. It can have a toll on the body. So then when you finally do it and there’s that freedom that you’re not bogged down with stress, it can be refreshing.”
It can also be especially rewarding for Ovechkin, given the changes he made in his off-season training and the sacrifices he made on the ice. The Cup run produced some of his most complete efforts when it comes to defensive commitment and attention to detail. “We know how to play championship hockey,” he said. “You don’t have a short off-season and then forget how you’re supposed to do it.”
Sometimes after a game, I felt like, ‘Did I even play? Am I even tired? Jesus, I want to play more’
– Alex Ovechkin
Former Capitals winger Mike Knuble, who played with Ovechkin from 2009 through 2012, sees a Hall of Fame talent who may have just gotten a second wind. He sees a different, more mature Ovechkin who has figured it out: the opportunities aren’t endless. “When you get into your 30s,” Knuble said, “and you look around the dressing room, and you see the other guys are looking a little bit older, you realize this is going to end at some point. Your brain grows, and you realize, ‘Shoot, well maybe I need to do things differently.’ ”
As he kept tabs on Washington’s playoff run last spring, Knuble saw glimpses of the raw talent that Ovechkin showcased early in his career. He also saw the Capitals captain aggressively backchecking, covering for teammates and blocking shots. “Good lord, man, when he’s leading the charge and his teammates are respecting it, everyone stands just a little bit taller and plays five or 10 percent better because you don’t want to let the guy down,” Knuble said. “You see he’s doing things the way they’re supposed to be done, and it’s like, ‘Hey, let’s get on board with him. Let’s get on that train.’ ”
Knuble saw the same thing unfold in Detroit with its captain in the late 1990s. Knuble made his NHL debut with the Red Wings in 1997 and is one of the only players to have been teammates with Steve Yzerman in Detroit and Ovechkin in Washington. Yzerman and Ovechkin have often been linked as Hall of Fame offensive talents who spent more than a decade chasing an elusive Stanley Cup title.
On June 7, 1997, a 32-year-old Yzerman was in his 14th season when he finally accepted the Stanley Cup for the first time from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. On June 7, 2018, a 32-year-old Ovechkin put a bow on his 13th season by doing the same.
Knuble saw Ovechkin flame out in the first and second rounds of the playoffs earlier in his career but also saw first-hand the effects that a long-awaited Stanley Cup title can have on a player and an organization. “You come in that following year, you feel a little bit lighter, a little bit quicker on your feet,” said Knuble, who had a peripheral role as a young depth player with the 1997 and ’98 Red Wings teams that repeated as Cup champions. “The vibe totally changes.”
Beginning in 1997, Yzerman and the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup three times in a six-year stretch. Like those Wings teams from the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ovechkin’s Capitals are loaded with high-end talent and an appropriate blend of complementary pieces.
Then there’s the leader himself, who, at least to start the title defense, seems to be completely at ease.
Between his first Stanley Cup and the birth of his first son – Sergei Aleksandrovich, named after his late brother – Ovechkin had a life-changing summer. The scary thought is the best may be yet to come. “It looks like he’s in the best mode ever,” Backstrom said. “He’s laughing all the time. He’s going to carry this over, I think. The way he was playing last year and the way he was relaxed, too, it’s just unbelievable for us in the dressing room to see how he carries himself.”
Ovechkin provided an early glimpse of that mindset to start the year with eight goals in his first eight games. “He’s got that bounce, and he’s got that pop in his stride again,” Oshie said. “I’m not putting any limits on ‘Big O,’ because it can always be special when he’s got that hop going. He’s at a different level than most of us.”