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Stanley Cup would permanently alter Alex Ovechkin’s legacy

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) holds the Prince of Wales trophy after the Capitals defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 during Game 7 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals hockey playoff series Wednesday, May 23, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos has played in six game 7s and has zero points in those series-deciding games. Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin has five goals and three assists in 12 game 7s.

Critics have used those disparate facts as proof that Ovechkin gets unfairly singled out for the Capitals’ past playoff failures, while other, Stanley Cup-less stars get off scott-free.

There are contextual problems with all points of this narrative – sample size, quality of teammates, quality of opponents and points-based evaluation among them — but dispelling this narrative through critical analysis won’t alter the popular view of Ovechkin as a generational regular-season scorer who can’t get it done in the postseason. Only one thing will change that perception.

While analytics tell us it is unwise to judge anything on the small sample sizes the postseason offers, historians will counter that small sample sizes are all you get in the playoffs and the greatest players find a way to perform in that high-stakes environment.

Fortunately for Ovechkin, he is turning public opinion in his favor this spring with the Capitals’ first run to the Stanley Cup Final in 20 years. Before this season, Ovechkin had three goals and three assists in 10 game 7s and he was infamously shut out in Washington’s 2-0, Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals.

In two Game 7 wins over Columbus and Tampa Bay this season, Ovechkin has three goals. He is also second to teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov in playoff points this postseason (22) and second to Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele (14) in playoff goals (12). Ovechkin is erasing the memory of past playoff failures, and if he can win his and the franchise’s first Stanley Cup by beating the Vegas Golden Knights, he may permanently alter his legacy.

“I think Alex is the guy that’s been engaged every playoffs,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz told reporters at Stanley Cup Final media day on Sunday in Las Vegas. “You look at his numbers, they’re undeniable. They’re really good. But I sense a freedom. I sense a guy that’s very focused, a guy that’s on a little bit of a mission, and it’s good.

“He’s very, very comfortable on this stage. He’s very comfortable in what he’s doing. He’s very comfortable within our group. And he’s very comfortable pushing forward and not worrying about anything else. He’s been a really good leader for us through the playoffs, and he’s done it by example.”

While reporters are milking the story of Ovechkin’s first Stanley Cup Final for all it’s worth, the player is taking a low-key approach. When pressed twice on why he sat on the bench for several minutes staring out at the ice before Sunday’s practice, he insisted there was nothing more than habit behind it. There was no conscious effort to soak it all in.

“I don’t think like you have to put pressure or urgency more than you used to do it. I think you just have to manage your emotions and do the same, exactly the same what you do in past years,” Ovechkin said. “Stanley Cup finals, like we’ve never been here. Of course it’s exciting, but I don’t want to get too excited. I don’t want to get too energetic right now before the games. I’d rather keep my emotions, keep my energy on the ice and do my best over there.

“Yeah, I’m enjoying it. When the playoffs start, I start enjoying it. You know, like we want to be here. We work so hard all year. I don’t think nobody believes in us and nobody believes in Vegas, and we’re right now in the Stanley Cup finals, and we fight for a Cup. Come enjoy this moment. I think everybody enjoys it. You guys enjoy it. Fans enjoy it.”

Earlier in his career, Ovechkin was perceived as a one-way player who didn’t pay enough attention to the defensive side of the puck to succeed in the playoffs. Trotz believes Ovechkin is a more complete player now.

“I had the opportunity to go over to Russia and talk to Alex right after his wedding (August 2016),” Trotz said. “We talked about that, keep growing. I mean, you don’t want to be a one-trick pony in this league. The league keeps changing on you, and the one thing that Alex does better than anybody, maybe in the history of the game, is score goals, shoot the puck the way he has. He has fantastic release. He plays a physical game for a pure skill guy.

“But we talked about, you know, finding other ways to be effective, and as I said, all those little necessary details; training a little different now as you’re getting older. You’re not 25 any more so you have to do all those little things, and he did, and he came in and set the tone of training camp. What did he have, back-to-back hat tricks to start the year? He was making a statement, and I think that carried forward for our team and Alex.”

Fair or not, superstars earn the lion’s share of blame when their teams lose and the lion’s share of the credit when they win. Ovechkin isn’t just carrying the weight of his own legacy, however. He’s carrying the weight of the Capitals’ dubious playoff past and the hopes of a city that has not won a major professional title in 26 years – the second longest drought among North American markets with all four major professional teams.

He is four wins away from shedding all that baggage.

“It’s been 20 years [since] the city, the fans and the players have been in the Stanley Cup finals,” Ovechkin said. “Our city, right now, is very excited, very passionate, like 6,000 people were there, I think, last night at practice. It was incredible.

“I think everything comes together, pressure, nervous, but I think as soon as you step on the ice, the pressure and the nerves just goes away. You don’t have to think about anything, only the puck, only the plays, only score goals, like blocking shots, the physical game, all the small details.”

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