Alexander Ovechkin looked like a cruise director, or like one of those hype men you hire to loosen up the crowd at a bar mitzvah. He clapped and he chanted; he corralled guests of honor to pose together for a big, goofy group photo; he generally appeared to have usurped complete authority over all celebration operations. Ovechkin, 32, had just won his first Stanley Cup, with his Washington Capitals defeating the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the final. He had lifted the 30-plus-pound trophy up with a primal, disheveled roar, and beckoned over his beloved teammate, Nicklas Backstrom, to take it next. And now he was buzzing around the ice, personally ensuring that everyone else, from players to assistant coaches, got their long-awaited turns too.
Alexander Ovechkin hoists the Stanley Cup Trophy....Goosebumps pic.twitter.com/kKbZK5UyVD— gifdsports (@gifdsports) June 8, 2018
Back in September, following a summer in which Ovechkin danced shirtless at his wedding, had a heart-to-heart with his head coach, Barry Trotz, and actually mixed in some forested jogs with his typical offseason diet of Moscow nightclubs, the Capitals captain returned to Washington and made a prediction about the season: “We’re not gonna be suck this year,” he promised the media. As if to prove it, he scored seven times in the Capitals’ first two games, and 49 total over the course of the regular season. In the playoffs, he led all players with 15 goals and finished with 27 points. He was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, and became the first Russian player to captain an NHL team to a championship. And he did it all while displaying the ridiculous, characteristic zeal that has been differentiating him for more than a decade.
On the bench, he bear-hugged (and sometimes kinda more like bear-humped) his teammates with a combination of nervous energy and relish. On the ice, he made sure not to waste a frankly preposterous saucer pass from Backstrom, collecting the levitating puck and sniping it past Marc-Andre Fleury for a 2-1 lead. Both of these moments were immediately distributed online, the way most Ovechkin moments should be—and are. In the aftermath of Game 5, it was particularly fitting that one Ovechkin meme had to do with coffee, because the guy’s mug has been everywhere lately!
me before i've had my coffee vs me after i've had my coffee pic.twitter.com/3bom6xIjwy— I Am Not Bryan Colangelo (@Whoabot) June 8, 2018
Ovechkin has long been known as one of the faces of the NHL, but in the past couple of months, his gap-toothed visage has become particularly synonymous with the game. During the final, NBC even took the unusual step of training a camera solely on him, as if to get maximum footage of him in his natural habitat. Not since the advent of HD TV has hockey programming been so drastically improved.
Playoff hockey, bless its heart and its grit, can sometimes be a hard-nosed, if well-meaning, slog. This year’s postseason, on the other hand—led by the unapologetically enthusiastic vibes of both Ovechkin’s Capitals and the brand-new Vegas Golden Knights organization—was a nose-thumbing romp. Why act like you’ve been there before, everyone involved in this year’s final seemed to ask, when everything is so shiny and new? Ovechkin has never been a player who practices the never-get-too-high-or-too-low wannabe Taoism of professional sports. He may be a freak of nature, with his shockingly durable “Russian machine” physique. (In 13 seasons, Ovechkin has missed more than four games only once, and one video shared during the Cup final was titled, factually, “Alex Ovechkin takes puck to face, barely flinches.”) He is indisputably one of the NHL’s all-time greats.
Holtby with a larcenous save, and Ovechkin's reaction is priceless pic.twitter.com/Q0JQYw4xOf— Hockey Central (@HockeyCentraI) May 31, 2018
But what’s actually so all-time great about Ovechkin is that despite all this, he still acts like an excitable avatar of the common fan. He jumps up and down and balls his fists and yells and screams and hides his eyes, and that’s when he’s happy. In the book Travels in Siberia, author Ian Frazier noted “the remarkable ability possessed by all Russians, even the sweetest and gentlest, to make their faces rock hard instantly when they want them to be.” (Twitter anthropologists might call this the “pre-coffee face.”) For years, at the conclusion of yet another disappointing Caps season, Ovechkin’s face always looked like that, stony and stoic, even if he probably didn’t want it to be.
Not this time. “It’s a great study in human emotions,” coach Trotz said of his captain earlier this week. “He’s gone through them all in the playoffs.” Indeed, it has been weeks of fits and starts, for Ovechkin and the rest of the team. In the opening round of the postseason, the Capitals dropped their first two games to the Columbus Blue Jackets, but then won four straight. Against the Penguins, Washington didn’t get rattled after dropping the first game at home, and Ovechkin’s reaction to the Evgeny Kuznetsov goal that ultimately won the series was perhaps the arch-GIF moment in a postseason full of them.
In Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay, Ovechkin was so mad about two straight home losses that he smashed his stick on a crossbar, but the Capitals, buoyed by back-to-back shutouts from Braden Holtby, won games 6 and 7. Washington remained calm in the final when a surging Vegas won a wild Game 1, and the Capitals somehow didn’t melt down completely in the closing minute of Game 5, when a bizarre clock malfunction led to the two teams playing in a sort of dreamlike soccer stoppage-time state (this can also be referred to as Vegas time) for what felt like a confusing eternity but was probably only, like, 20 seconds.
As the game finally ended, Ovechkin did his bear-hump thing on the bench again and then reared back and all but howled at the moon. Far away in downtown D.C., the countless fans publicly Rocking the Red inside and outside Capital One Arena were undoubtedly reacting in much the same way. And while there were plenty of arguments to be made about which player deserved the Conn Smythe award as the playoff MVP—in his postgame presser, Trotz admitted that the 26-year-old Kuznetsov maybe had the edge—there was little dissent when Ovechkin won it.
“He’s had all three acts,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis told NHL.com after the game. “The first act is this young kid comes out of nowhere and has this great success. Then, there’s a second act where there’s a fall. People love to write about the fall. Then, the third act is this great comeback, and we love a comeback.” (For his part, Ovechkin honored their relationship by reminiscing about the time during his rookie season that he and Leonsis hung out by the pool and daydreamed about winning it all.)
Leonsis is right that Ovechkin is entering a new act; now that he’s cemented one legacy, he’ll be starting a new one. Following the game, it was confirmed that Ovechkin’s wife, Nastya, is pregnant with their first child. And there are other signs that he’s a new man: When a woman in the stands merrily flashed the Capitals as they skated around the rink in victory, Ovechkin was so focused on the Cup that he didn’t even notice the … cups. (The screenshot of the rest of Ovechkin’s teammates drawn to the girl gone wild like moths to a flame, while their captain kept skating unaware and alone, was instantly iconic—as well as a possible preview of the upcoming #Dadvechkin era.) And speaking of Dadvechkin, there was no moment more protective and tender than when Ovechkin reached in to help an injured Backstrom, who has been playing with a busted hand, keep his grip on the Cup.
In the wee hours of the night, Ovechkin would be spotted around Vegas: dragging the Cup from the team bus, to a nightclub, to the lobby of the MGM Grand, taking the show on the road. But before he could do any of that, Ovechkin stood on the ice at T-Mobile Arena, a thick towel hung around his neck, attempting to wrangle his teammates back into the locker room, like a caterer at a wedding asking guests to please finish up at the bar and take their seats for dinner. Before he disappeared into the tunnel, Ovechkin held up the Stanley Cup once more and kissed it. “Thank you, Vegas!” he yelled, with the joyful and ragged face of a man who had finally, after all these years, made his own damn luck.