The heartbreak had begun to feel permanent.
All those nail-biters and almosts turned nothings and quiet walks out of the Capital One Arena. In the 10 seasons preceding 2017-18, the Washington Capitals made the playoffs nine times. They lost in the do-or-die despair of a seven-game series in seven of those years; in 2016 and 2017, they fell to the dreaded Pittsburgh Penguins, who then had the nerve to go on to win the Stanley Cup both times. More than anyone, the stink of playoff doom affixed itself to Alex Ovechkin—the Capitals’ captain and star player. “A decade of Caps’ successes and failures have one thing in common: Alex Ovechkin,” read one Washington Post headline. Maybe the Capitals were cursed, the murmurs came. Or maybe it was bad luck. Or else—who can say?—maybe it really was Ovi.
It wasn’t. On June 7, the Capitals hoisted their first Stanley Cup, toppling the Vegas Golden Knights four games to one. It’s Ovechkin’s screaming face, the Cup raised over his head, that will be the enduring image of the 2018 championship and, probably, of his own career, if not the Capitals or D.C. sports writ large.
FINISHED! Introducing the Alexander Ovechkin word art - handwritten with the date, score and opponent of every Capitals game in 2018! pic.twitter.com/6U1MLdaqDm— Daniel Duffy (@RealArtOfWords) June 20, 2018
One of the stranger parts of the Capitals’ championship is that it was foretold, sort of. On the first day of training camp in 2017, Ovechkin made a most Ovechkin sort of promise: “We’re not going to be suck this year,” he said—a funny sort of thing to say, given the suck-being from the previous years had his teams go further than just about any other. But that was the point—the suck was all those almosts. He was 31 with the teeth of a 92-year-old, and that long train of terrible losses and outsiders wondering about his captaincy dragging along behind him.
But on the ice, he was just Ovi. (Relevant quote on the subject: “Hahaha ice.”) By March, he’d scored career goal no. 600, climbing by the end of the season to 15th on the list of all-time regular-season goals. When the Caps clinched their division in April with a win over Pittsburgh, they didn’t so much as celebrate. As the playoffs got underway, Ovechkin distracted himself from thoughts of a championship, he said, by thinking of simpler things: “Whatever. Cars. Hotels. You know, Vegas.”
In the second round, they faced the Penguins once again. In Game 6, with the Capitals leading three games to two, regulation ended with the teams tied, 1-1. In overtime, an Ovechkin pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov, the new, young hero of this Caps team, set off the breakaway that let Kuz score. The Penguins fell. The Capitals advanced. And Ovechkin looked, briefly, as though he were communing with some higher power, eyes closed and exhaling as he raised his arms, his stick, and skated forward.
The night it finally happened, after the Capitals toppled the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference finals and then, with the Stanley Cup on the line, took down Vegas on the road, Ovechkin screamed at the rafters. In the hours and days that followed, Ovi, Cup in tow, went on a Ferris Bueller–esque tour through the capital. He and T.J. Oshie swam in a fountain in Georgetown. He did a keg stand with the Cup (before an unspecified Capitals player bent it) and carried it through the lobby of MGM’s D.C. casino. In a most D.C. coincidence, Ovechkin escorted it to establishment haunt Cafe Milano—where Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner separately sat dining. (Ovechkin and Ivanka hugged.) He tucked it into bed alongside himself and his wife, Nastya. The couple had their first child this year, a boy, Sergei Aleksandrovich Ovechkin. Ovi cried during the delivery, he said later. “You don’t think you’re not gonna do it, but it just goes automatic,” he said.
When he finally saw his ring, the clusters of diamonds and rubies and gold spelling OVECHKIN and 8 and WASHINGTON DC and CHAMPIONS, he seemed, for a moment, very serious. In footage of the winger seeing the ring for the first time, he picks it up gingerly, rolls it around in his hand. He puts it on a finger, realizes it’s upside-down, flips it. And then he finds Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and wraps him up in a bear hug, tightly, eyes closed, seemingly on a plane of contentment that the rest of us can merely aspire to. It happened. It was here. It was his.
Leonsis has said that Ovechkin made clear early on that he intended to spend the duration of his career in Washington, that he wanted, in Leonsis’s words, to “see it through.”
Ovechkin closes out the rally in fitting fashion pic.twitter.com/8LiOHjLnoB— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) June 12, 2018
The championship rally in June closed out with Ovechkin standing before thousands upon thousands of Caps faithful, telling them the only thing he could: that the promise had been kept. “We’re not going to be fucking suck this year. We’re Stanley Cup champions,” he roared, and the crowd roared with him.
Ovi’s pledge evolved as the 2018-19 season began: “Not suck back-to-back.”