Alex Ovechkin finally enjoying playoff run after hurdling second-round hump

Sean Leahy
NBC Sports

It wasn’t enough that the dragon was finally slayed. The elation pouring out of Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals after eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins wasn’t a sign that a second-round escape was their version of a Stanley Cup victory.

Through two games and two victories against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, Ovechkin and the Capitals have shown that their mission isn’t complete. You could have excused them if they came out flat in Game 1, but it was clear from the start that they came ready to play, unlike their opponents.

And for Ovechkin, who has 10 goals and 19 points this postseason, he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down, even as he approaches game No. 97 of the season Tuesday night in D.C. (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream).

The Capitals had made the playoffs 10 times in the Ovechkin era. Each year has ended in disappointment, with the Penguins and New York Rangers the authors of a combined six exits. Aside from 2013 when he was held to two points in seven games, the captain has been a key contributor in those attempts to win a Stanley Cup, and through 111 career playoff games, he has recorded 109 points, including 56 goals.

He’s obviously, he’s having fun. He’s producing. He’s all in,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “We asked our group to, if you’re going to have success, you have to have all-in contribution, and he has. I think he’s enjoying the run, the playoffs maybe for the first time in a long time. He’s the face of the franchise, and as I said, as the face of the franchise you get a lot of the credit and you also get a lot of the blame. Because of that I think at times it’s taken some of the joy out of it too.”

[Plenty to figure out for Lightning ahead of massive Game 3]

You can tell by watching when he wins and when he loses just how much the game means to Ovechkin. The losses have been crushing over the years, but the goals — oh, so many goals — elicit joy from the 32-year-old that makes it difficult to not enjoy this run he and his teammates are on — unless you’re from Pittsburgh, of course.

A lot of the focus of Ovechkin’s postseason career has been on the lack of success, and rightly so. But while the Capitals as a team have failed numerous times, he’s been driving the ship as usual. Since 2005-06, Ovechkin has averaged 0.98 points per game in the playoffs, tied for fourth with Nikita Kucherov among all players with at least 50 games played.

While a lot of attention during the regular season was thrown the way of the Penguins, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, and Vegas Golden Knights, the Capitals were there humming along towards an eighth division title since ’05-06 and a fourth straight 100-plus point season. Why didn’t the they garner more love, even while Ovechkin was threatening to hit the 50-goal mark for an eighth time? Probably because we had seen that movie before. A strong regular season, one marked with a division title and maybe a Presidents’ Trophy, and then things coming to a crashing end, thanks to the Penguins or Rangers or that spring’s hot goaltender. The approach from the outside has continually been “Show us what you got in April,” and with the expectations and pressure seemingly absent entering this postseason, success is happening.

“I think we’re just enjoying the time right now,” Ovechkin said before Game 2. “I don’t think we take the pressure too much right now and it’s helped us a lot.”

“I think the guys that have been here a while, and [Ovechkin] as well, he hasn’t talked about it,” said Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen. “I’m just guessing here, knowing him. He’s a competitive guy, and he’s taken some past failures pretty hard, and he’s not going to let this opportunity go to waste. He’s bringing it. So good for him. He’s leading the way.”

Back to that joy… It could have been an ugly off-season in Washington had the Capitals not found their way out of either of the first two rounds. Trotz is still without a contract beyond this season and general manager Brian MacLellan could have chosen to try and carve up his roster looking for different results next season. But Evgeny Kuznetsov beat Matt Murray on that breakaway in Game 6, thanks to an assist from Ovechkin.

Now in the conference final, it was the Lightning who carried the pressure of being favored in the series. Through two games, they’ve fumbled and the Capitals have taken advantage. Ovechkin has done his part with a goal and an assist in both Games 1 and 2.

“I think he’s taken 14 years of frustration out in one playoffs — not just on us, like this whole playoffs season,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “He’s taking it out on that, and he’s — there’s a reason he has 600 goals and he’s done all these wonderful things in the League. In the past he’s not had playoff success, and when you do get to taste a little bit of it, it really tastes good.”

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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