LAS VEGAS — Forgive Alex Ovechkin, but he’s not in a celebratory mood. Not even in Vegas.
The same guy who once compared playing hockey here to going to a nightclub — “It’s like a party. Everybody dancing over there. It’s like, ‘Holy Jesus, are we in a hockey game or is this like a pool party?’” — will not be at any actual pool parties this week.
He’s not here to gamble. He’s not here to see Cirque du Soleil or Penn and Teller. He’s not even willing to crack a smile.
Not yet, anyway.
During a mandatory media session on the eve of the Stanley Cup final, Ovechkin was asked how his long-anticipated arrival to the dance was being received in his native Russia. Was it big news? Had the president been in touch?
“Yeah, Vladimir Putin called me and wished me luck,” Ovechkin, arms crossed, said in a deadpan delivery. “No, it’s just joke.”
The room erupted in laughter, but Ovechkin remained serious, sombre even. He didn’t look like someone who had been craving the spotlight that comes with being in the final. Instead, he looked like he wanted to head back to his hotel room and get a solid 12 hours of sleep.
The 32-year-old has been all business since the playoffs began. Don’t expect that to change just because the Capitals are in the final. If anything, he’s doubling down.
“I’m enjoying it,” said Ovechkin, again not smiling. “I’m enjoying it since the playoffs start. When the playoffs start, I enjoy it. We want to be here. We worked so hard all year. Nobody believed in us and nobody believed in Vegas. And now we’re in the Stanley Cup final. We’re going to fight for the Cup. I’m enjoying this moment.”
Off the ice, that’s debatable. But on the ice, he certainly seems to be enjoying himself.
While Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has the inside track on the Conn Smythe Trophy, Ovechkin has been the Capitals’ MVP in these playoffs. This is the playoff run Ovechkin has been waiting for his entire career. As Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said in the conference final, “I think he’s taking out (13) years of frustration out in one … playoff season.”
Ovechkin, who had four goals and seven points against the Lightning, has 12 goals and 22 points in 19 games. But it’s not just the production that’s stood out. Ovechkin, who has 58 goals and 112 points in 116 career games in the playoffs, has always produced in the post-season. But we’ve never really appreciated it because it always came in the first two rounds.
That changed this year. For the first time in his Hall of Fame career, Ovechkin advanced past the second round, where he finally edged Sidney Crosby’s Penguins.
“I think Alex is the guy that’s been engaged every playoffs,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “You look at his numbers — they’re undeniable. They’re really good. But I sense a freedom. I sense a guy that’s very focused, a guy that’s on a little bit of a mission, and it’s good. But I think, more than anything, it’s the freeness of the playoffs.
“He’s very, very comfortable on this stage. He’s very comfortable on what he’s doing. He’s very comfortable within our group. And he’s very comfortable pushing forward and not worrying about anything else. He’s been a really good leader for us through the playoffs, and he’s done it by example. And it’s not just the goal scoring. I think Alex understands that the complete game, the commitment level, those little details, those hard things they have to do to be — that are necessary for you to win, he’s all in on that. And I think that, to me, is really where he’s made a big impact.”
Nowhere was that more apparent than against the Lightning, where Ovechkin set the tone with board-rattling hits and became a factor even when he wasn’t scoring.
Against Vegas, he will be leaned on for more of the same. He knows it. And maybe that’s why he was so subdued on Sunday. For the Capitals to win, he’s going to need every ounce of energy he can muster.
After all, he’s waited an entire career for this moment, and he might not get another shot at it.
“I don’t think like you have to put pressure or urgency more than you used to do it,” said Ovechkin. “You just have to manage your emotions and do the exact thing that you do the last series. The Stanley Cup final, we’ve never been here. Of course you don’t want to get too excited, too energetic right now, before the games. I’d rather keep my emotions, keep my energy on the ice and do my best there.
“I tried to do my best in the regular year and in the playoffs. Of course, in the playoffs you don’t have tomorrow.”
• Email: email@example.com | Twitter: @michael_traikos