NEW YORK, N.Y. – The Washington Capitals are on top of the NHL standings with captain Alex Ovechkin leading the way.
Stop if you’ve heard this one before.
Just last season, the Capitals ran through the Southeast Division and the rest of the league and skated off with the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time in team history. Most of that was forgotten, though, after an unexpected seven-game playoff flameout in the first round against the Montreal Canadiens.
So while regular-season dominance is impressive on a team and personal level for Ovechkin and the Capitals, it won’t matter much if it doesn’t translate into post-season success. And that doesn’t mean advancing a round or two, it means winning the Stanley Cup.
“Our mindset is that we have a very good team, but we have to play better in the playoffs. Just be how we play in the season—the same way,” Ovechkin told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “Last year we listened to too much media and we listened too much to people. This year, we want to think about ourselves and don’t think about what people are saying about our game.”
That might be easier said than done.
All the Capitals have heard since the spring is about how they came up short. Ovechkin has been, and probably will forever be, compared to Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby, who has already led the Penguins to one Stanley Cup title and another runner-up finish in the six seasons since the pair joined the NHL together.
The Capitals have won only one playoff round since Ovechkin was chosen with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft.
Ovechkin got the best of Crosby in the rookie of the year chase in 2006, and both players have claimed one scoring title apiece. Ovechkin has won two NHL MVP awards, Crosby has one. Team success is the one thing that truly separates the two.
“Everybody knows what we have to do,” the 25-year-old Ovechkin said.
Ovechkin spoke as part of a promotional tour for a new DVD that was released Tuesday called, “Alex Ovechkin: The Great 8.”
Ever since Ovechkin started playing hockey at age two, when he found a hockey stick in a toy store back home in Russia and refused to let it go, he has been on the path to stardom.
The video provides a glimpse into Ovechkin’s life on and off the ice. It tracks him in Washington, in Las Vegas for last season’s NHL awards show, and even to his country home in Russia.
“I think fans want to see it. The fans are going to love it,” Ovechkin said.
He isn’t sure exactly how players and fans will react in January, when the new NHL all-star game format will replace the traditional Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference matchup. Ovechkin even admitted that he doesn’t know all the rules that were revealed last week by the league.
Two captains will be chosen, and that pair will then “draft” all-stars to their teams for the game and skills competitions in Raleigh, N.C.
“We’re going to see how it’s going to work,” Ovechkin said.
There likely will be several Capitals on display during the all-star game, but with the new format the teammates could be pitted against each other. Ovechkin is an obvious lock to be there, and strong cases can certainly be made for fellow forwards Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, along with top defenceman Mike Green.
The Capitals (13-4-1) entered play Wednesday on top of the NHL with 27 points—one more than Philadelphia, last season’s Eastern Conference champion. Ovechkin started the day third in the league with 25 points—including 10 goals—in 18 games. He trailed Crosby and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos by three points, and led Semin by two.
Crosby and Stamkos tied for the league lead with 51 goals last season, ending Ovechkin’s two-year reign as the NHL goal champion
Much of Washington’s early success can also be traced to the play of Michal Neuvirth, who is 11-3 with a 2.60 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 16 games. Neuvirth has excelled while filling in for Semyon Varlamov, who has played only two games this season because of a groin injury. Both goalies are 22.
Along with 21-year-old Braden Holtby, the Capitals have had three of the nine youngest goalies to play in the NHL this season. Neuvirth, the NHL’s rookie of the month in October, was the first Capitals goalie to have 10 wins in the team’s first 16 games. Washington’s rookie record for wins is 18 by Jim Carrey in the 1994-95 season.
“It probably surprises you, but not us,” Ovechkin said of Neuvirth. “We know he is going to be a good player and he has played great for us.
“We have three young, good goalies.”
The Capitals are trusting their goaltending, and there is still plenty of faith in the team from fans in the nation’s capital. Although the Capitals haven’t brought home a Stanley Cup title since they entered the NHL in 1974, Ovechkin doesn’t sense D.C. has given up on him or the team.
“Everything has stayed the same. They are still supporting me,” he said with a laugh.