Capitals

Capitals

ARLINGTON – There was a time in the middle of a brilliant career when critics wondered if Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin was washed up. 

His goal scoring was down. His team continued to lose early in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It wasn’t always clear that Ovechkin was committed on both ends of the ice. The joy seemed sapped from his game, that iconic gap-toothed smile a distant memory. 

Early in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, at age 27, Ovechkin had two goals through 10 games. He was still adjusting to his fourth NHL head coach, Adam Oates. He had dropped to 32 goals in 2010-11 and 38 in 2011-12. For most NHL players those numbers would be wonderful, but the bar was set so high for Ovechkin. Maybe he was destined to become a 30-goal scorer on a team that wasn’t going to be a real Stanley Cup contender again. Maybe his best days were behind him.

A Sports Illustrated article from February of that year was blunt: “Is Alex Ovechkin Washed Up?” The answer was a definitive “No.” 

“I’m sure he had some doubters out there before,” said Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, the only active player besides Ovechkin with a 60-goal season on his resume. “But he’s found a way to consistently produce in this league. He’s a horse out there. He’s a big strong guy and his longevity has been amazing in terms of staying healthy, staying out on the ice.”

 

It’s funny to look at Ovechkin’s mid-career struggles from behind the lens of all that has happened since – the Presidents’ Trophies, the 50-goal seasons, the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin took off shortly after the SI story ran on Feb. 18, 2013. He had just five goals 16 games into that season, which was shortened to 48 because of the lockout. But moved to the right wing by Oates, something clicked. Ovechkin found his game again. He scored a ridiculous 27 goals over the final 32 games. He won his third Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. It’s not a time of his career, though, that he looks back on often. 

“I just enjoy my time,” Ovechkin said. “I just enjoy playing hockey.”

It wasn’t a linear return to form. Ovechkin’s rejuvenation was one of the few positives of the short Oates era. The Capitals lost in the First Round to the New York Rangers in that year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs in seven games. The playoff futility hadn’t changed even if Ovechkin was scoring again. And the next year, despite 51 goals from Ovechkin, Washington missed the playoffs for the first time seven years. 

Somehow, Ovechkin was a minus-35 despite topping 50 goals for the first time since 2010. That seemed to say it all about the state of the Caps in those days. Oates and general manager George McPhee were fired. It took the roster moves of new general manager Brian MacLellan and the steady hand of new coach Barry Trotz to revive the organization and Ovechkin’s career arc. 

But Ovechkin changed, too. His powerhouse shot will always be there, especially on the power play. But he found other ways to score. He slowly became a more responsible player defensively, picked his spots better. The Capitals won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies – yet no one complained when Ovechkin’s streak of three straight 50-goal seasons ended with 33 goals and 36 assists in 2016-17. Not even after a second consecutive devastating Second Round loss to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs.

The captain was doing his part well after his 30th birthday. The idea that he was washed up seemed crazy just three years after the idea was floated. Even as Washington struggled to adjust to key roster losses last season and fought early hiccups, Ovechkin was on his way to another 49 goals and the Capitals were on their way to the Stanley Cup.

Ovechkin had lived up to every benchmark set when he was drafted in 2004. He scored 15 postseason goals, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and hoisted the Cup. 

“It has been an amazing transformation to be a part of in the last five years,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “I coached against him a lot [with the Pittsburgh Penguins] and that was no piece of cake, a challenge every night when you’re the opposition. But I have a whole different respect for him for how he has grown as a human and as a leader.”

 

This year, Ovechkin scored 51 goals again and his 89 points were his most since 2010. Those dark days in the middle of his career seemed like a bad dream. Now, Ovechkin and the Capitals have a chance to reach the loftiest of goals: A second straight Cup. That journey begins in earnest on Thursday with Game 1 of a first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes. 

"I don't think it's easier, but you feel like you're the Stanley Cup champs, you know?” Ovechkin said. “Like, everybody is the same as when we didn't win, it's the same situation that we wanted to show we can do it and be in this position again.”

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