Alex Ovechkin has played in six Stanley Cup Playoffs series during his NHL career, but Thursday night's game against the Boston Bruins marks the first time he'll appear in a Game 1 on the road.
The Washington Capitals' string of four consecutive Southeast Division titles was snipped in this tumultuous regular season, as they conceded that banner to the Florida Panthers and rallied for the No. 7 seed in the East.
Ovechkin had a rally of his own that coincided with — one could argue initiated — the Capitals qualifying for the playoffs. He had 16 points in his last 19 games, including 12 goals.
That helped reduce the taste of bile left from the most underwhelming offensive season of Ovechkin's career: 38 goals and 27 assists, the first time he finished below a point-per-game average. But it left both the star and his team in the unusual quandary of being hyped to the moon in October and then being written off against the defending champs in April.
How Ovechkin responds will determine if the Capital upset the Bruins.
In his career, Ovechkin has 12 goals and 17 assists against Boston in 27 games. Recently, the Bruins have actually done a hell of a job keeping Ovechkin from hitting the back of the net. He has one goal in his last seven games against Boston; he didn't score one this season, and the Capitals managed to go 3-1-0 against the champs.
But in a seven-game playoff series, they'll need him, as they've needed him for the majority of their victories this season.
According to the Washington Post, the Capitals were 21-5-4 this season when he scored at least one goal, including 5-1-2 in March and April. In 41 wins, Ovechkin has 48 points. In 37 losses, Ovechkin has 17 points.
He's a catalyst for the team, scoring the first goal of the game nine times and the first goal for Washington in a game 14 times. He's also a closer: Ovechkin is the only Capital with two overtime goals, and has scored seven of his 38 goals in the final 10 minutes of the third or in OT.
The Bruins, however, are one of the best-prepared teams in the Eastern Conference to face a player like Ovechkin, thanks to defensive juggernaut Zdeno Chara. From the Worcester Telegram:
If Ovechkin and first-line mates Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer are on the ice, you can expect to see Chara and shutdown sidekick Dennis Seidenberg out there, too.
"It's something that motivates me," Chara said of the looming showdown. "It's something that I enjoy, competing against the best players. Obviously, they have a few great players on their team. Sometimes the matchups are hard to get, especially on the road. When you do get them, you want to make the best of them."
Chara, Seidenberg, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and other Bruins will work in concert to shut down Ovechkin by any means necessary. The Capitals captain relishes that.
"The more physical game it's gonna be, the more it's going to be better," he said.
Tarik El-Bashir of the Post said Ovechkin needs to answer the bell in one of the first two games of this series in Boston, calling it nothing less than a chance for redemption for Ovechkin.
If Ovechkin manages to continue his recent surge and ignite a deep run in the playoffs, few will remember his regular season struggles or the fact that the Capitals didn't clinch a berth until the final week of the regular season. After all, legacies in the NHL are forged in the postseason. If anyone understands that, it's Ovechkin, who has a trophy case full of awards but has not come close to claiming the one that matters most.
If he falters, though, the potential ramifications could be severe. A first-round exit — particularly one in which the Capitals offer little resistance — would mark the third time in five years their season ended in the quarterfinals. It could lead to sweeping changes for a team The Hockey News predicted would win the Stanley Cup in August. It also means the window of opportunity, the one that seemed to be so wide open four seasons ago, just closed another inch or two.
In 37 playoff games, Alex Ovechkin has 50 points - 25 goals, 25 assists and four game-winners.
What he doesn't have: a signature series victory.
Ovie's Capitals have been the favorite pushed to the brink or upset by lesser teams (the Rangers, Canadiens, Lightning) or beaten by an evenly matched foe (Flyers, Penguins). They've yet to win a playoff series that didn't involve the New York Rangers.
There are other considerations for the Capitals beyond Ovechkin's series: How Braden Holtby handles the playoff pressure as a rookie, and whether Michal Neuvirth will be healthy enough to supplant him if he falters. How the Caps handle the Bruins' physicality, and whether they can squeeze any secondary scoring out from Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin and Jason Chimera.
But this is Ovechkin's moment. For the first time in his career, the rock star has been relegated to being an opening act for a bigger band.
His generational peers have long surpassed him in postseason success, despite his postseason output. If he leads the Capitals to a series upset of the Boston Bruins, Alex Ovechkin changes the conversation about himself and his team.
"Maybe there's gonna be more surprises than you think it's gonna be," said Ovechkin of this week of the Bruins' series.