Alex Ovechkin lifts burden off himself, DC sports fans

When Alex Ovechkin hoisted the Stanley Cup into the air in Las Vegas on Thursday, a burden was lifted off himself and sports fans of Washington, D.C.

The Capitals defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in five games, ending a championship drought for fans of metro D.C. professional sports teams, who hadn’t celebrated a title since Washington’s NFL team won the Super Bowl in 1992. It also cemented the 32-year-old Russian’s legacy with his first NHL title after 13 seasons in the league.

“It meant everything,” Ovechkin, a native of Moscow and the team’s captain, said. “I think this moment, we were waiting a long, long time. … It just was — joy.”

“Was a tough time, but we fight through it and we get the result.,” he added. “Now I’m going home to our family, our fans. It’s just something special, you know. I’m just very excited and I’m very happy right now.”

The Russian was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NHL draft. What would have been his first season, though, was the 2004-2005 NHL lockout. Then came the years with playoff misery. The Capitals couldn’t get out of the second round or past Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins, who had eliminated Washington in each of their past seven playoff series and in nine of 10 series overall.

“Every team was special,” Ovechkin, who has been Washington’s captain since 2010, said. “But I thought the only thing that last couple years, we didn’t pass the second round. Just playing, and no satisfaction. Every year we want to fight through it. Finally we did. We knew this year is going to be our year. We just have to believe it and keep working, keep playing.”

This year was different — and it was thrilling.

Washington trailed in every series in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs but kept clawing back. The Capitals overcame a pair of home overtime losses to start the postseason in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets, before taking out the Penguins in round two.

They rallied from a three-game losing streak to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, including a road win in Game 7.

All season long, the big NHL story was the incredible season by the Golden Knights. The expansion team — the first of any major U.S. sports league to be based in Las Vegas — was a shock just to make the playoffs in its inaugural season. No one could have predicted reaching the final.

But once the Stanley Cup Final began, the narrative shifted toward Ovechkin and the Capitals, who ended the league’s second-longest championship drought by winning its first Stanley Cup in its 44th season. The Los Angeles Kings also captured the 2012 Stanley Cup in its 44th season; the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won the Cup since 1967.

Ovechkin led the playoffs with 15 goals and ranked second in points to teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov, earning him the Conn Smythe Trophy — the NHL’s equivalent to a playoff MVP award. Ovechkin was the second Russian-born winner of the honor since it was first awarded in 1965.

Ovechkin is the first Russian captain to win the Stanley Cup and just the third from outside North America, joining Nicklas Lidstrom (Vasteras, Sweden) in 2008 and Zdeno Chara (Trencin, Slovakia) in 2011 with the Bruins.

It caps a milestone season for the Russian, who notched career numbers in goals (600) and games played (1,000). He reached the 40-goal mark for the ninth time, capturing his seventh Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy.

“I think it’s just like a dream,” Ovechkin said. “You know, it was hard, long season.”