Next to other NHL superstars, Alex Ovechkin has always been different.
By the frequency and irrepressible manner to which he’s scored — and celebrated — 668 goals in the regular season and playoffs combined throughout his illustrious career, with the astonishing means with which he’s balanced madcap physicality with an uncompromising standard in durability, how he tacitly expresses and refuses to conceal the emotion he feels in the moment.
With these distinctions, Ovechkin established himself as the greatest pure attacking force of his entire generation — and perhaps ever.
And also, a sympathetic character in hockey circles.
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Over the course of 13 seasons, as team failures worked to devalue his achievements, and the increasing amount of grey poking out from the slits of his helmet served as a reminder that the hourglass was filling up, it became harder and harder for fans to watch his heart break, over and over, as his Washington Capitals continued to fail.
Most recently, as two of the three most successful seasons throughout Ovechkin’s tenure were wasted with second-round losses at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins (defeats that just so happened to enhance the body of work of Sidney Crosby, the legend and rival to which Ovechkin’s career is most readily juxtaposed with), it seemed certain that the invalidating “yeah, but” caveat that has latched on to his legacy would persist.
Then something incredible happened.
A team that bled talent all summer, earmarking it for a slow drift into mediocrity as Ovechkin played out the string on his productive seasons, started on an improbable run.
First it was four consecutive victories over Columbus after losing both games on home ice to begin the series. Then it was Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime winner in Game 6, which finally pushed the proverbial boulder up the mountain against Pittsburgh. Next the Capitals outperformed Tampa Bay over the course of six games, which was only enough to force a decisive Game 7. Ovechkin scored 62 seconds into that one, and Washington dominated from that point to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Of course there they met the Vegas Golden Knights, winning in five.
What promised to be a fascinating championship series between an expansion team and a franchise that belongs to one of sports’ most long-suffering fanbases did fall short of expectation.
But witnessing the greatest sniper in history — and one of the few NHL players that can’t robotically conceal their joy or their angst — hoist 34.5 pounds of silver high above his head to forever alter the narrative that, for many, has distorted his legacy, did not.
Alexander Ovechkin hoists the Stanley Cup Trophy….Goosebumps pic.twitter.com/kKbZK5UyVD
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) June 8, 2018
Whether or not Ovechkin, who will be 33 before his next NHL game, needed this moment to validate his historic career comes down to whatever construct one chooses.
Though it’s insignificant now, there was a camp that refused to acknowledge his place among the greatest players in league history (or the fact that he was hardly the reason his teams failed, scoring 116 points in 121 career postseason games) because he wasn’t able to win the “big one.” And there are others willing to completely isolate Ovechkin, removing team from the equation completely, and celebrate him for the incomparable skillset he’s used to enter the conversation as the the greatest goal scorer ever.
Others fall somewhere in between.
But one thing was made abundantly clear in the euphoric moments that followed the final buzzer Thursday night in Las Vegas, as Ovechkin revelled in his own glory, but at the same time made sure to take a moment with each player and every Capitals staffer in the Stanley Cup celebration.
An idyllic state interrupted, only momentarily, when he was called to accept the 16th individual award of his extraordinary career — the Conn Smythe Trophy for postseason MVP — just minutes before finally fixing his hands on the one piece of hardware that will include the names of his teammates right along with his own.
Alex Ovechkin really did need to win a Stanley Cup. For himself, for those closest to him.
“It’s everything,” he said, simply.
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