WASHINGTON – It’s an hour after his team’s final regular-season game ends in victory, clinching his first NHL playoff berth, and Alex Ovechkin grabs one of the red T-shirts commemorating the Washington Capitals’ surprising Southeast Division title.
He pulls it over his shaggy mop of black hair. Over the scruffy beard teammates say makes him look like one of those Geico cavemen. Over his oft-broken nose. Over his dress shirt and striped tie. He puts on a suit jacket, pleased by his look, then sets about cajoling other players to don the Ts, too.
A giddy Ovechkin sees Capitals owner Ted Leonsis in the locker room. They throw their arms around each other in a sweet embrace.
“Nobody believed,” the US$124-million employee whispers to the boss. “Nobody.”
It has been quite a transformation.
The Capitals went from 6-14-1 and 30th in the 30-team NHL on Thanksgiving Day to the No. 3-seeded club in the Eastern Conference playoffs, facing the Philadelphia Flyers in a series that begins Friday at Washington. Thanks to a season-closing seven-game winning streak – and victories in 11 of their last 12 games – not only will the Capitals return to the post-season for the first time since 2003, but Ovechkin will make his NHL playoff debut.
“If he’s not MVP of the league now,” Leonsis says in the post-game euphoria Saturday night, “I don’t know who deserves to be.”
Corralled right before he makes it out the door, Ovechkin smiles through every answer of a brief interview. Some phrases are clipped, others are cliches – the sorts of rehearsed sentences often heard from professional athletes. It’s as though he were speaking in his native tongue.
“I don’t feel pressure,” the face of the franchise proclaims.
“I just do my job,” the league’s leading scorer professes.
“We don’t give up,” the assistant captain insists.
It’s only when asked to compare his recent play with that of his first two NHL seasons that the 22-year-old Russian they’ve come to call “Alex the Great” exhales, then pauses for a moment, perhaps thinking about what’s transpired and what’s to come.
“It was my greatest year,” he says finally, flashing his gap-toothed grin, “and it’s not done yet.”
No, it isn’t, thanks to a remarkable turnaround by the Capitals that Ovechkin steered but did not engineer alone.
Credit must be shared with coach Bruce Boudreau, a career minor leaguer who was promoted in November when Glen Hanlon was fired. And with three key trade deadline additions, including Cristobal Huet, whose nine consecutive victories represent the longest streak by a Capitals goalie in more than 20 years. And with centre Nicklas Backstrom, whose 55 assists broke a franchise rookie record set by – who else? – Ovechkin. And with Mike Green, who led NHL defencemen with 18 goals.
“Alex is a big part of it,” Boudreau says, “but he’s not the only part.”
Still, consider these bona fides of Ovechkin, a player Flyers goalie Martin Biron says “shoots 100 miles an hour, 100 per cent of the time”:
-65 goals, a club record, the most ever by an NHL left wing, the most by any player at any position since 1996 – and 13 more than anyone else scored in 2007-08;
-112 points, also a league best this season;
-22 power-play goals, 11 game-winning goals, 446 shots, all league highs;
-60 points in 39 games since signing his 13-year contract in January, a deal he basically negotiated on his own;
-a plus-28 rating, tied for seventh in the league and indicative the 2006 rookie of the year’s newfound commitment to helping out at the defensive end;
-163 career goals, a higher three-season total than everyone in NHL history except Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy.
That list of seemingly meaningful statistics could go on and on and on. Yet, as Ovechkin succinctly puts it: “Without the playoffs, the numbers mean nothing.”
Conversely, there would be no playoffs for the Capitals without his numbers.
Or his attitude.
“He’s led us here over the last month. I don’t know what his goals were or his points,” Green says, “but his energy that he brought and his character really helped us. Can’t say enough about that guy.”
Ovechkin’s glove-wagging, board-slamming celebrations when he scores are something akin to what happens after goals on a World Cup soccer field. It’s telling, though, that he gets just as pumped up when a teammate finds the net.
When Tomas Fleischmann scores in Saturday’s 3-1 victory over Florida, Ovechkin is the first member of the Capitals to offer a high-five to Fleischmann, followed by pats on the helmet for others on the ice. After Alexander Semin’s goal that night, Ovechkin darts over on those yellow-laced skates of his and launches his 6-foot-2, 217-pound frame at his teammate, countryman and pal, a hug-slash-tackle that leaves both sprawled on the ice.
“What I like about ‘Ovie’ is, winning, losing, we’re ahead by five, we’re down by five, he always plays the same way – with heart and determination. We all feed off that,” teammate Matt Bradley says. “When you have a guy like that on your team, it’s almost like anything’s possible, you know?”
Apart from Sergei Fedorov, the Capitals who will be on the ice against Philadelphia don’t have a ton of NHL playoff experience.
No one seems too worried about how Ovechkin will handle the setting.
“He plays playoff-style hockey all year round,” Bradley says. “He’s not going to have to change a thing.”
And what about facing a Flyers team that has revived its “Broad Street Bullies” persona?
“What can I do? If they want to hit me, hit me,” Ovechkin says. “I don’t care. … It’s the playoffs. No friends on the ice.”
He certainly plays that way. This is no finesse-only forward.
Don’t forget: During the very first shift of the very first game of his very first NHL season, Ovechkin pounded an opposing player into the boards so hard that a beam came dislodged from the glass.
Before the night was over, Ovechkin would score two goals, too.
“You just kind of knew,” Bradley says, thinking back to that Oct. 5, 2005, game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, “he was going to be something special.”
One could be forgiven, then, for imagining what Ovechkin might have in store for his first playoff appearance.
How many goals, perhaps even of the YouTube-worthy variety?
How many assists?
How many hard hits?
After all, everyone knows the post-season presents an opportunity to showcase skills on a more prestigious stage and with much more at stake.
Casual fans pay attention. TV ratings rise. Reputations are made. Endorsements are earned.
Ovechkin is happy to leave such speculation to others.
“I don’t want to show what I can do,” he says. “I just want to win.”
With that thought, Ovechkin is done talking to reporters for the night. He heads out of the locker room, eager to celebrate not so much what has been accomplished, but what might lie ahead.