- Alex Ovechkin seemed to be playing on another level in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was a primal scream, full-throated and full-bodied, thunderous enough to loop around the Beltway and carry clear across the Potomac. A shriek that spoke for an entire fanbase, from the tormented crowd that crammed around Chinatown to the thousands hollering themselves hoarse inside Capital One Arena. A yell that was born on the home bench, smack amid a line of red sweaters, from the player whose emotions might as well be permanently tattooed onto his forehead. “It’s just automatic,” Alex Ovechkin explained. “You just get excited.”
Picture a few defining images of these Stanley Cup playoffs so far. There was Ovechkin, eyes shut and neck craned skyward, reacting as the Capitals finally advanced past the second round last month. There was Ovechkin, head buried in his hockey gloves upon witnessing the modern miracle of The Save earlier this week. And here is Ovechkin now, enveloped by a hug from teammate Lars Eller, howling at the wrister that center Evgeny Kuznetsov wired past Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, celebrating the eventual game-winner in a 3-1 triumph.
No, the spotlight should not entirely shine onto Ovechkin now that Washington has assumed a 2-1 series lead in this Stanley Cup Final, now halfway toward its first major pro sports title in a quarter-century. Through three games the Capitals have increasingly swarmed and suffocated the Golden Knights’ feared transition attack, most recently limiting their visitors to 19 shots on goal until Fleury was pulled with two and a half minutes left. Kuznetsov returned no worse for wear after exiting Game 2 hunched over with left arm pain, while bottom-line winger Devante Smith-Pelly provided the third goal Saturday for his fifth of the playoffs.
But everything started with their captain. By the end of a scoreless first period, Ovechkin had already registered a night’s worth of stats—three shots on goal, six additional shot attempts, two hits, one block—while buzzing around with his typical gray-hair-on-fire gusto. Perhaps this was pent-up energy from hearing Pat Sajak vamp and plod through pregame lineup introduction. Or maybe, as defenseman John Carlson said, “He was possessed out there. That’s a good way to put it, I think. He’s playing with passion and energy and joy and he’s a one-man wrecking crew. How committed he is. It’s the best he’s played in my opinion.”
Committed. That word comes up a lot among fellow Capitals concerning Ovechkin these days. Difficult to quantify, but easy to see. Take that first-period block, when he jutted his leg into the shooting lane of Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt and the puck skipped off his knee. "He set the tone with intensity, with physicality," coach Barry Trotz said. "He blocked shots. He got pucks out. He did all the details along with what he does—score at a massive rate."
Ovechkin crossed that well-trodden bridge early into the second period, simultaneously giving Washington its first-ever Cup Final lead at home and setting the franchise scoring record for a single playoffs (14). It wasn’t bombed from his cushy office inside the left faceoff circle, though, but backhanded while tumbling face-first through traffic outside the Vegas crease, an extra dash of grease from a diesel engine. “I thought it was sort of the right thing … that Alex would score the first goal,” coach Barry Trotz said. “I thought that was a little bit of poetic justice if you will for all the tough times.”
No one shouldered blame for those tough times quite like Ovechkin, of course, so it stands to reason that no one should be having more fun now. “He’s an emotional guy,” Smith-Pelly said. “He shows it. He wears it on his sleeve. It’s funny to watch him during those highs and lows of the game.”
Not that Saturday night brought many lows (save the puck-handling gaffe by goalie Braden Holtby that helped Vegas cut its deficit to 2-1 at the start of the third period). The Capitals clogged the neutral zone with its 1-1-3 forecheck, used diligent stickwork to curb Vegas’ counterattack, and helped Holtby by quickly clearing pucks (and bodies) from high-danger areas—the same recipe that already netted their first Eastern Conference title in two decades. “It's huge moments for us,” Ovechkin said. “You just want to give emotion to your teammates and to yourself as well.”
And so he scrambled from his knees and tore around the net after chipping the puck past Fleury, inviting teammates to join his celebration. So he looked skyward when Kuznetsov scored, another GIF-worthy moment delivered for the social media masses. So he screamed, arms raised, automatically, like someone who can already taste what is now two wins away, and who understands what that would mean to Washington.