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Ovechkin does the little things to make a big thing possible

Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin, bottom in red, gets a shot past Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) during the second period of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals between Washington and Vegas.

WASHINGTON POST PHOTO BY JOHN MCDONNELL

By BARRY SVRLUGA | The Washington Post | Published: June 3, 2018

The goal is the important play. It'll be on the highlights, and it put the Washington Capitals ahead in the second period, and it's what Alex Ovechkin has built a reputation - really, an entire life - on. How Ovechkin scored it matters, too, because he wasn't in his La-Z-Boy in the left faceoff circle. Instead, he was tangled among bodies, a greasy spot he might not always have gone, falling to the ice because that's exactly what it took.

But even if Ovechkin's goal spurred the Capitals' 3-1 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night at dead-red Capital One Arena in the third game of the Stanley Cup finals, go back to the first period, the first period of June hockey this building has hosted in 20 years. With about two minutes remaining, Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt loaded up a shot.

And there was Ovechkin, moving up on Schmidt. He did not avoid the puck. He sought it. As the puck rose, Ovechkin's left knee rose with it. There was never a danger of it reaching goaltender Braden Holtby. Ovechkin blocked it.

The entire exercise of Saturday night was a reminder of how thirsty the District is for a champion. In the hours before the game, even with rain seemingly hanging immediately overhead, F Street was packed, home to three television stages and thousands of fans. Drink it in and enjoy it, because we know that one opportunity won't necessarily beget another.

While surveying that crowd, and then yelling with the 18,506 who helped make this the 414th straight hockey sellout in Washington, consider that none of it happens without Ovechkin. We have known that over a decade, but it's important to acknowledge it now. Saturday night was Ovechkin's 564th game in this building. It was his first in a Stanley Cup finals. Scoring the first goal here, call it karmic or whatever - it felt right.

But in the blocked shot is everything Ovechkin is giving, at the end of his 13th season, to win his first Stanley Cup. It was a reminder that we are watching a transcendent goal scorer, the best of his generation, playing the most complete hockey of his life.

"I sense a freedom," Washington Coach Barry Trotz said earlier in the series. "I sense a guy that's very focused, a guy that's on a little bit of a mission."

Ovechkin's primary mission - 10 years ago and Saturday night and forever - will be to score. He has done that this postseason. That goal in the second period, it was his 14th of these playoffs, tying the franchise's postseason record. The Capitals have played 22 games during this run. Ovechkin has now recorded a point in 17 of them. He is doing his job, and doing it well.

But let's look at the way he did that job Saturday. Evgeny Kuznetsov took one shot, but even as he did, Ovechkin was planting himself like a redwood in front of the crease. This is a "hard-to-get-to" area so frequently referenced this time of year. Ovechkin not only got there. He considered buying furniture.

So when defenseman John Carlson pounced on Kuznetsov's rebound and got off another shot, Ovechkin had put in the work. The puck squirted to the right of Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb tried to ward him off. No chance. Ovechkin reached with his backhand and flipped it in.

Capital One Arena, which spent much of the first period sort of feeling out the game, exploded. Ovechkin, they know, brought so many of them to this building. But when past playoff runs ended a month earlier, he so frequently took the blame. I know, because I have blamed him.

That blame, locally or nationally or from Canada or back home in Russia, it was a burden. We are, right now, watching it get lifted. No, no. Rather, we are watching him lift it off himself.

"He has absorbed everything since he came to town," said Vegas General Manager George McPhee, the man who drafted Ovechkin when McPhee held the same position with Washington. "He's been in the spotlight. It's been a nice thing for other players - whether it's Kuznetsov or [Nicklas] Backstrom or [John] Carlson, many of these guys - to not play with the pressure that he has to play with. He absorbs everything, win or lose."

Right now, the Capitals - and Ovechkin - are winning. It's a remarkable thought that Saturday's result puts them all of two wins from the Stanley Cup.

They will, of course, be the two most difficult wins of Ovechkin's career. Monday night is the next opportunity.

Whether he scores or not, watch Ovechkin in these games. The camera is drawn to him. He has always been mesmerizing on the ice, the player your eye subconsciously follows.

Now, he's almost as entertaining off the ice. When Holtby made the save of his life Wednesday night - preserving a victory in Game 2 - Ovechkin covered his face with both his gloves, disbelieving and thankful and relieved all at once. When Kuznetsov scored to put the Capitals up 2-0 later in the second period Saturday, Ovechkin jumped to his feet and thrust his arms and his eyes skyward, joyous and appreciative, so in the moment.

But as you watch Ovechkin on Monday in Game 4 and beyond, notice not just when the puck hits the back of the net. Notice how he gets down to block shots. Notice how he hits. Notice how every movement he makes is a tiny commitment to winning the game.

Saturday night, Alex Ovechkin's goal helped the Capitals win the game. It was huge. The shots he blocks? They are small by comparison. But they just might be what wins this series - and, therefore, the Cup.
 

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