Photo by Brian Murphy for The Sports Capitol
Ovechkin adds Conn Smythe to his trophy case
BY TODD DYBAS | JUNE, 8 2018
When it was over, Alex Ovechkin let it all out. He screamed and screamed and screamed. Ovechkin left the bench to jump onto a pile of teammates behind the Vegas goal where on-ice microphones caught him summarizing what had happened.
“Oh, my fucking God!” he said to Matt Niskanen.
Seemed apropos, considering. The failures had melted away. He came into the league in 2005, a wrecking ball scoring addict who didn’t play much defense, wasn’t yet worried about legacy and was just starting a path to all-time stature.
The goals came. It seemed he would pass a new name on the scoring list about once a month for the last three seasons. With them, a “C” was sewn onto his jersey. A new era of hockey was born in the District. Ovechkin helped spur it. Then he lived with the failures of the expectations he created.
It’s not overzealous to call 2018 a rebirth. A mediocre, by his standards, 2017 ended with just 69 points and yet another loss to the Sidney Crosby-led Pittsburgh Penguins. His coach and general manager openly suggested Ovechkin had to be faster or more engaged or more something.
So, he changed this season. The driving legs were back. The bombs from the left circle returned. His work during 5-on-5 rebounded. Ovechkin led the league in goals — just one short of the beloved 50-goal mark — before he led everyone in postseason emotion on his way to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP.
Take two plays from Thursday’s Cup-clinching Game 5, neither of which were goals. Ovechkin drew a penalty when he steamed up the ice and tried to split a pair of Vegas defenders. There were the legs, the effort, that jump into high gear that seemed to dwindle a season ago. And it was happening June 7. Then look at when he sprinted back to foil what could be a 2-on-1. Back-checking, shot-block Ovi. This is not the same player who was labeled a reckless, goal-first, non-leader. Not the same guy whose legacy was defined by all those hard shots and gut-wrenching losses. He won Thursday.
The Capitals had three viable candidates for the Conn Smythe: Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby.
Kuznetsov finished the postseason with a staggering 32 points. He eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins with an overtime game-winner that made this run seem possible. The Penguins were gone, finally, and dispatched in their arena because Kuznetsov was loose after a lead pass from Ovechkin, then finished the job before bursting into his bird celebration.
Kuznetsov is just 25 years old and coming. He has a clear path to ascension in the league as a charismatic stick-handler and talker. His contract runs through 2025. No one produced more points in the playoffs, no one provided more assists. For now, he is still trailing Ovechkin in the pecking order. His time will come.
“He was unbelievable,” Ovechkin said of Kuznetsov. “What I can say? He makes the magic over there. He keep puck on his hands, we knew, like, something’s going to happen.
“It was fun to watch. Fun to play with him in this series, this whole playoffs. I’m sure you can see how he played today, whole Finals. He scored big goals. He was outstanding.
“It’s not about me. It’s just the whole team deserve it. I’m just lucky to have this reward.”
Holtby didn’t initially have a chance to be here. His careening regular season prompted Barry Trotz to select Philipp Grubauer to start the playoffs. An 0-2 deficit against Columbus pushed Trotz back to his veteran goaltender. Holtby took it from there, helping the Capitals rally against Columbus, against Pittsburgh, against Tampa Bay, then, ultimately, against Vegas. They became the first team since the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins to win the Stanley Cup when trailing in all four series. Throughout, Holtby did his eye-tracking exercises, struck his Yoga pose during timeouts and muttered to himself, absorbed in his personal otherworldliness.
Though Holtby doesn’t leave with a secondary prize, he did collect a moment along the way that may have altered everything: His reach-back stick save against Alex Tuch in Game 2 with 1:59 to play helped the Capitals to acquiring home ice. That, like the outcome, will be seared into District sports lore. Without it, who knows?
Ovechkin sat at the postgame podium flanked by glory with the Cup to his right and the squat Conn Smythe Trophy to his left On Sept. 15, 2017, the first day of training camp, he made a declaration: “We’re not going to be suck.” As Thursday turned Friday, Ovechkin could head into heat of the Las Vegas night knowing that to be more true than ever.
Brian McNally contributed to this report from Las Vegas.
Todd Dybas is the managing editor and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He has spent 17 years in the sports editorial industry, working as a writer and layout editor, winning multiple awards in both positions. He has been an NFL beat writer, has worked as a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for seven years, and is a member of the Pro Basketball Writers Association.