Alexander Ovechkin is on the cusp of his first Stanley Cup for a city starved for a winner. Ovechkin has been a superstar since entering the league but despite gaudy numbers had never taken his team to the Stanley Cup Finals.
But coming into this season’s playoffs, it felt different. Despite being down 2-0 to their coaching nemesis, John Tortarella (coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets), the Caps came back to win four straight. Then came the big one. The Pittsburgh Penguins. There’s no need to go down all of the disappointing endings to their biggest rival.
After giving away Game 1 of the series, you would think this organization would have the feeling of “here we go again” but that wasn’t the feeling in the Nation’s Capital. Something was… well… different. No one could put their finger on one particular reason, you just knew it wasn’t the same. That gut feeling proved to be correct as Ovechkin and the Capitals would go on to dominate the rest of the series, disposing the defending Stanley Cup champions in six games.
At that point, no one could stop Ovechkin from what seems to be his destiny. Not even the Tampa Bay Lightning/New York Rangers roster who were within a game from facing the Vegas Golden Knights. The Capitals calmly one the remaining two games for their first appearance in the Finals since 1998.
At that moment, you couldn’t help but to think of Michael Jordan. His Airness is mainly remembered for his six NBA championships but, like Ovechkin, it came after being labeled as one dimensional and then a struggle with a rival.
Ovechkin and Jordan both busted on the seen as electrifying offensive players. Their offense was on display every night in ways fans didn’t see everyday. It was easy to be a fan of both… it was also easy to be a critic. For Jordan, the fancy offensive numbers couldn’t get them past the second round. Early in his career, his brilliance was on the display at the Boston Garden where he took Larry Bird’s Celtics into overtime on the famed parquet floor. After the game, Bird said
“I think he’s God disguised as Michael Jordan. He is the most awesome player in the NBA. Today in Boston Garden, on national TV, in the playoffs, he put on one of the greatest shows of all time. I couldn`t believe anybody could do that against the Boston Celtics.”
But, despite 63 points, Jordan couldn’t deliver a victory as the Bulls got swept by the Celtics.
For Ovechkin, there was the same criticism. He was thought of as one of, if not the best, goal scorer in the league but it was built up as if his numbers were more important than winning. No one has been a bigger Alexander Ovechkin critic than Mike Milbury. The former NHL player and coach has been relentless with his criticism of the “Great 8” including questioning his commitment to the game.
But like Jordan, Ovechkin changed the narrative. Both were once thought of as “one way” players concerned about the numbers on the back of their sports card. Jordan eventually dominated both ends of the floor and Ovechkin might not be a defensive stalwart, but he’s much better on that end of the ice.
Both were also defined by not being able to get over their rival. The Detroit Pistons owned Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls for three straight years in the playoffs. It was something Jordan had to break through if he wanted to cement himself into the GOAT conversation. Once the Bulls were able to beat the Pistons in the playoffs, they went on to cruise through the NBA Finals only losing Game One to an overmatched Los Angeles Lakers team.
Ovechkin faced the same with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Like Jordan, he was able to finally slay the dragon, albeit not in the conference finals. Just like that Bulls team, they lost Game One of the Final Series and have cruised through the next three games looking, head and shoulders, like the better team.
Now Ovechkin is only 60 minutes away from a Stanley Cup. Unlike Jordan, he won’t be in the conversation as the best ever in his sport but he will have overcome all the “selfish” talk and a dominating rival to win the ultimate prize in his sport… a Stanley Cup.