Playoff pressure finally seems to be off Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin

Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin enters Amalie Arena before taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin enters Amalie Arena before taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published May 15 2018

WASHINGTON, D.C. — He is the NHL's most polarizing player, even in his home city.

Great, yet doubted. Sensational, yet questioned.

Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals. Clearly, one of the most talented players in the game. One of the most talented players in the history of the game. His resume proves that. More than 600 goals. More than 1,100 points. A seven-time all-star.

But look farther down on his resume and it's not what's there, but what isn't: playoff success.

For the first time in his 13-year career, Ovechkin is finally playing in the conference final even though he has been on several teams that seemed destined for the Stanley Cup. And every time his Caps came up short, who took the heat?

Ovechkin. Even if it wasn't his fault.

Maybe that's why he has spent much of his career playing with a chip on his shoulder, playing with anger, playing like he wasn't having the least bit of fun.

"He's the face of the franchise and, as the face of the franchise, you get a lot of the credit and you also get a lot of the blame,"Caps coach Barry Trotz said. "Because of that, I think at times it has taken some of the joy out of it, too."

Well, he sure looks like he's having fun this postseason. And why not? Going into Tuesday night's Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final against the Lightning, Ovechkin was tied with teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov for most points by a player still playing this postseason. His 10 goals and nine assists have led the Caps closer to reaching the final for the first time since 1998.

In a word, Ovechkin, 32, has been a beast.

And he's having a blast.

"I think he's taken 13 years of frustration out in one playoffs — not just on us, like this whole playoffs season," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

"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."

Ovechkin is eating so well right now, he's getting fat on playoff success.

He dominated the previous series when the Capitals finally exorcised a personal demon by knocking off Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. His spectacular goal with 1:07 left to break a tie in a pivotal Game 3 against the Penguins was the goal of that series.

When he skated off the ice after the Capitals won the series with an overtime victory in Game 6, Ovechkin looked happier (and more relieved) than he ever had in his entire career.

The series before that, Ovechkin had two assists in a crucial Game 3 victory after the Caps had fallen behind the Blue Jackets two games to none.

What is it we say: big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games?

Yeah, that's Ovechkin in these playoffs. A big-time player making a huge impact in every game. He had a goal and an assist in each of the first two games of this series against Tampa Bay. If the Lightning is going to beat the Caps, it needs to start with raining on Ovechkin's postseason parade.

"He's obviously having fun," Trotz said. "He's producing. He's all in. 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."

Maybe for the first time ever.

Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.

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