TAMPA, Fla. — Alex Ovechkin’s goal 62 seconds into Wednesday night’s game at Amalie Arena didn’t look much different than most of the other 664 he has scored for the Washington Capitals during his illustrious 13-year career.
It was much more meaningful, though.
The goal stood up as the winner in Washington’s Game 7 triumph over the Lightning to lift the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years and the first of Ovechkin’s career.
Only the Golden Knights stand in the way of Ovechkin raising the Cup and bringing the nation’s capital its first NHL title.
“We’re going to the Stanley Cup Final,” Ovechkin said after staring hockey voodoo in the face and proudly hoisting the Prince of Wales Trophy. “I think everybody is happy, but we still have unfinished … you know what I mean. I don’t know. I’m emotional right now. I think we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”
It’s a far cry from a year ago when Ovechkin was written off by many critics at age 31 following yet another early postseason exit in a season he failed to lead the league in goals for the first time in five years.
Washington coach Barry Trotz knew his star forward still had plenty left to give. He visited Ovechkin in Russia over the summer to discuss the future.
“We talked about redefining himself a little bit,” Trotz said. “There was a lot of people doubting that he still had what it took. I think great players take exception to that. A lot of things were said at the end of last year in the press, on Twitter and social media, that were hurtful. I think he took it personally. He said, ‘I’m going to show you I’m still a great player,’ and he did. He was very consistent all year. (Led the league in goals) again. He’s been one of our leaders as he always is.
“Ovi’s been on a mission,” Trotz said.
He’s four wins away from completing it. Whatever critics there were have long since disappeared.
There certainly isn’t anything negative coming out of the Vegas locker room as they prepare for a best-of-seven series to determine who hoists the Cup.
“The guy’s one of the best goal scorers ever to play the game,” Knights forward James Neal said. “He’s got a heck of a shot.
“He’s one of the best to ever play.”
Knights coach Gerard Gallant knows his team will have to be prepared for the impact Ovechkin will certainly have on the series.
“He’s an exciting player,” Gallant said. “He’s a star in our league for a long time, and he’s a hungry hockey player. He’s got one of the best shots in the league, if not the best. He’s a goal scorer, and we’ll obviously have to pay special attention to him and his linemates.”
Ovechkin’s ability to find the net made him a star. His intangibles have endeared him to his teammates and lifted the Capitals to postseason success after his teams had failed to get past the second round despite division titles in seven of the last 10 seasons.
“We know Alex is going to score goals,” Washington goalie Braden Holtby said. “He’s taken it upon himself to lead our team in the right direction. Not only him, but all of our veterans are finding a way to make an impact every shift. Be it scoring, making a defensive play, hitting someone, the energy we got from our physical play was just so good. Alex especially. Every shift he’s doing something that’s infectious through our whole lineup. You can’t defend the guy. You look every game and he could have three goals. That’s an amazing thing to have on our squad.”
The Capitals won three times on the road to get past the Lightning. Ovechkin scored in all three victories and has 12 goals this postseason.
The Soviet-born left winger is in the top 20 in NHL history in goals scored, has won seven Maurice Richard trophies as the top goal scorer in the league and captured three world championships for Russia.
He has never been this close to hockey’s ultimate prize.
Ovechkin is just four wins from reaching one more goal.