Friday, June 08, 2018

The great wait is over for Alexander Ovechkin


By Steve Simmons
June 8, 2018
Ovechkin holds up the Conn Smythe Trophy (GETTY IMAGES)

LAS VEGAS — Alexander Ovechkin held the Stanley Cup high above his head, his body and the Cup shaking and bouncing, his bright and wide toothless smile adding additional glitter to the Las Vegas Skyline.
It was a moment for hockey and history in a season and a playoff so full of moments and Ovechkin took his championship lap in style. He’d waited long enough, certainly, for this one-man parade. His moment alone, his first time with the Cup, moments after receiving the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP and just before the rest of his teammates took turn their turns.
The much-kicked at Washington Capitals, the great team that couldn’t and wouldn’t, the club that took hockey choking to a new level, is now and forever a Stanley Cup champion. It only took 43 years and almost as many roadblocks but not anymore: The greatest goal scorer of this generation, Ovechkin and the little red team that couldn’t are now proud champions in a season in which the ending was both delightful, inconceivable and just a little bit scrambly.

There was the Stanley Cup on Thursday night on the ice of the T-Mobile Arena — that’s history too — home of the first-year Vegas Golden Knights, the Stanley Cup not as ornament or a pitch to sell season tickets, there to be won and celebrated at the home of an expansion team.
The Capitals became champions in a year in which few saw them coming, meeting the Golden Knights in a season in which no one saw them coming. This was the least likely of all Stanley Cup finals, which made even a short series and a rather one-sided series, still hockey charming.
The wait for Ovechkin, for possibly outgoing coach Barry Trotz, for the long-serving Capitals such as centres Nicklas Backstrom and Jay Beagle, for winning goal-scorer Lars Eller, makes the celebration and the victory all the more special. It was a Stanley Cup final with odd twists and turns, but almost no controversy. The Golden Knights were the story of the year, the story of any year you can name, until the Capitals started to expose them the way other opponents could not.
But in the final, close as they were in most games, they ran out of good fortune, story and bounces.
There would be no happily ever after ending for this hockey fairy tale. A terrible Luca Sbisa giveaway in the third period made that possible: The Capitals, led by their great players, Ovechkin, the centres Evgeny Kuznetsov and Backstrom, the goaltender Braden Holtby, the pending free agent defenceman John Carlson were simply too strong, too powerful, too well-coached, too deep for the series to last another game — even though the Knights may have played their best game of the series on Thursday night.
And yet third-period goals came from Eller and from the shocking scorer Devante Smith-Pelly, not from the biggest names on the roster. Odd as this may be, a team with hockey’s greatest goal scorer and its newest emerging superstar in Kuznetsov, resorted to a variation of the neutral-zone trap to get past Columbus in Round 1 (barely), the defending champion Pittsburgh in Round 2, the expected finalist, Tampa Bay, in a third round in which they appeared to transform themselves and completely dominate in Games 6 and 7 against the Lightning: The Capitals won six of their final seven playoff games to grab the Cup.
Those final two games against Tampa showed a different Washington team than we’d ever seen before — an overwhelmingly physical, dominant, never in doubt team, winning those games by a cumulative score of 7-0. And the Lightning had more weapons than Vegas could offer.
Washington won six of its final seven playoff games by a cumulative total of 27-14. They were full value for their championship and Ovechkin no longer has to answer questions about what didn’t happen.
Now he has a Stanley Cup, the same number as Bobby Hull has, with both having led the NHL in scoring in seven different seasons. He doesn’t have to hear about Sidney Crosby anymore. He doesn’t have to hear about being on the same list as Marcel Dionne, the great players who have never won. One championship changes outside perception for him — not necessarily inside the game — but it changes for the franchise, for everything that has been accomplished and for every race that wasn’t finished in the past.
The goal Ovechkin scored in the second period was his 15th of the playoffs, tying a significant number with Crosby, the most post-season goals by anyone other than those two in the past 22 seasons. The number mattered. The win mattered. This was a championship for individuals, a championship for a team in need of one, an almost-championship season for this Knights team that came from nowhere.
And a championship season for the National Hockey League, larger and richer than ever before, with a new city, a new franchise so very alive and an old superstar carrying the Cup.

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