WASHINGTON, D.C.—When the banner had been raised and it was time to say goodbye—for the next nine months, at least—Alex Ovechkin glided over with the Stanley Cup in his hands. Curling the trophy to his lips, as he had done so often this summer, the Washington Capitals captain smooched its silver one last time. Then he stepped forward, lowered it into a velveted trunk, patted the shimmering barrel twice and skated away without looking back.
“We always going to remember this for our life, forever” Ovechkin says. “But we have to do it again.”
Earlier that day, hours before the Capitals celebrated their season-opener by crushing Boston 7-0, Ovechkin sat at his stall inside the team’s practice facility, next to a towering STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS decal that now adorns the wall. Arms loosely crossed, gaze softly fixed, the 33-year-old leaned back and contemplated his next challenge. He will always be remembered for the BAC-blasting bender that ripped through greater Washington in June. But once the Stanley Cup departed his Moscow home the following month, life quieted down and new objectives came into focus. “As soon as you get your day, it give you stop sign, you know?” Ovechkin tells SI.com. “You start thinking, ‘Okay, what I have to do to get ready for year?’”
Brooks Orpik wanted to know the answer to that question too. As the Capitals’ only previous Stanley Cup winner before they beat Vegas in five games, the defenseman wondered how Ovechkin would handle his first taste of true success. “Was that the pinnacle?” Orpik says. “Like, he got his Cup and he’s all good now?” Then Orpik skated with Ovechkin upon returning to Washington. “I was like, wow, he looks 10 times better than I could’ve ever expected, especially after the summer we just had. He really committed himself to coming back.”
Judging by the power play one-timer that he pummeled against Boston, and the centering feed he redirected past Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray roughly 24 hours later, Ovechkin remains the same inexhaustible physical specimen who has logged 82 games in consecutive seasons and captured the 2018 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. “That’s probably one of the main marvels around our room,” goalie Braden Holtby says. “It’s like he’s built in a lab somewhere. He doesn’t break.”
As such, Ovechkin felt little need to alter his usual offseason training regimen, still conducting speed workouts and hauling weight sleds—and flipping tires, evidently. But he also discovered that returning to routine helped recenter his mind after so much revelry. “As soon as you start doing little things, you back on track and you know that’s what I want to do, I want to be in good shape, I want to come to training camp, not 100% but maybe 75% and then you take another step, another step,” Ovechkin says. “Of course all the parties, all the celebrations, you can stay out of rhythm. But as soon as you do all the right things, you get back on track.”
One final gift arrived Aug. 18, less than a month prior to Capitals training camp. Named for Ovechkin’s late brother, baby Sergei Aleksandrovich is already taking after Papa Ovi. “He’s huge,” Ovechkin says. “He’s already right now six and a half kilos. Pretty big boy. He’s sleeping [a lot] right now. [I’m] still waiting for that moment when we can walk with him more than once a day. It’s something special.” Indeed, not long after Ovechkin’s wife Nastaya gave birth, Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom texted a friendly reminder to his longtime teammate: “Two of the biggest things in your life happened in one summer, so enjoy it.”
More than anyone on the roster, Backstrom understands the immense burden that ascended from atop Ovechkin’s shoulders when the visiting bench emptied against Vegas … and the sweeping relief that followed. Legacies crystallized in that moment, reputations forever rewritten. “You obviously feel the pressure,” Backstrom says. “The more years you go, it gets worse and worse. It’s a nice feeling that we can have something positive in our hockey careers, something to move forward from here.”
Ovechkin, for his part, sees things this way: The Capitals returned 18 of the 20 players who dressed for Game 5 against the Golden Knights, losing only backup goalie Philipp Grubauer and fourth-line center Jay Beagle. Youngsters like Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky have room to grow. No one needed offseason surgery. Even switching head coaches went as smooth as possible when popular assistant Todd Reirden replaced Barry Trotz. So why not aim higher?
“I think we’re all excited because we know we can win again,” Ovechkin says. “We have the same group of guys, the same core, and that's the most important thing.”