LAS VEGAS — He got to do it, Alex Ovechkin did. He got to leap over the boards and throw his gloves in the air and his stick on the ice. He got to leap into a pile behind the goal. And in a rink thousands of miles from where he makes his American home, he got to hear so many red-clad fans celebrate a moment he had to doubt would ever come: a Stanley Cup championship.
The Washington Capitals’ 4-3 victory in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final — a comeback win that sealed the first championship in franchise history — was built on the backs of men who have come from all over the hockey world to make this team, a team that pushed to places in which other versions of the Capitals always crumbled.
But that victory could be distilled into that moment after the final horn sounded. When the pile of Capitals behind the goal tended so ably by Braden Holtby all night broke up, there was Ovechkin embracing Nicklas Backstrom. They had endured all the pain together. They knew, more than any two Capitals, what this meant to their franchise and their city. They were red-faced and emotional, and who can blame them?
What a thing.
Ovechkin spent the last two months erasing so much from what might have been his legacy. Had Thursday night not happened, we would have written the same old stories spring after spring after spring: He can’t push past Pittsburgh or he’s not the leader he should be or there’s something missing that we can’t put our finger on.
Had he retired without that moment Thursday night, there would be no real discussion about who was the best player in NHL history who failed to win a Cup. There’s no Marcel Dionne or Pavel Bure or Eric Lindros or Cam Neely. There would have been only Alex Ovechkin.
Now? Continue that old argument. It doesn’t involve the most important player in Capitals franchise history. Ovechkin has his Stanley Cup. Try to take it away — Thursday night, or forever.
Since he first appeared in the NHL — back in the fall of 2005, when the Capitals wore different colours and the building was half-empty as often as not — Ovechkin has been the fulcrum of virtually every game he plays. He warrants attention even before the puck drops. Why would Thursday, in the most important game of his 32 years, be different? As the two teams warmed up, he skated near centre ice and tapped the pads of Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with his stick. Fleury seemed to take exception, and when Ovechkin skated past him later, Fleury whacked him with his own stick, right across the shins.
Whatever was going on there, it fits with Ovechkin’s career. If he’s on the ice, it is nearly impossible to take your eyes off him.
And that’s why he carried so much of the burden when the Capitals’ seasons ended in May, not June. No one was or is scrutinized like Ovechkin. People looked for what he didn’t’ do. They seemed to dismiss that he essentially scored once every two playoff games in which he appeared, 46 goals in 97 playoff games coming into this spring.
Now, those numbers no longer have to be parsed. Ovechkin’s power-play goal Thursday night was his 15th in the 24 games of these playoffs, more than any Capital had scored in any post-season.
When he scored it, though, we saw everything else he brought this spring, too. When he first arrived in Washington all those years ago, he would score and then hurl himself into the glass, almost willfully wrecking his body in the name of fun. As he grew older, and his 20s were left behind, his celebrations became not subdued, but less gleeful, for sure.
This spring, every emotion of the Capitals’ fan base was right there on Ovechkin’s face. When the Capitals pushed past the Penguins — how much sweeter does that make this, by the way? — it was Ovechkin’s look to the heavens that summarized the night. When goalie Braden Holtby made the save of his life to preserve the Capitals’ first victory in this series — 3-2 in Game 2 — Ovechkin buried his hands in his gloves, a human exhale.
And so here, when he put the Capitals ahead in a game in which they could win the Stanley Cup, Ovechkin held his left index finger aloft. He didn’t wag it at anyone as much as signal what he was in the moment, how he had felt all playoffs: No. 1.
Winning the Stanley Cup is a collective effort, and we will spend the next days and weeks and months recounting everything that went into this journey and this night. Devante Smith-Pelly, sprawled on his back, scoring the goal that tied the game in the third. Lars Eller, sliding behind Fleury as Brett Connolly’s shot trickled through the pads, putting the game-winner — the Cup-winner! — into the net, and then signalling his teammates to come in for a Cup.
Everyone who skated here Thursday night had a hand in this. The guys who didn’t dress — the Nathan Walkers and Alex Chiassons and others — they helped, too, because there were enough moments, over 24 games and nearly two months, to be spread around.
But the fact of the matter is that, since the moment he first pulled on a Washington sweater as the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, these have been Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals. At times, that has seemed a burden. Not now. Not anymore. Not forever.
Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup Thursday night. Maybe it’s not fair that one simple sentence alters a legacy, but it does. The thing is: watching him throughout these playoffs, he seemed to understand that. So he wasn’t a bit player in it all. He went out and changed his legacy by himself, and he got to hoist the Cup that proved it.