ON AN APRIL MORNING in 2008, Alex Ovechkin emerged from behind a wall at the Capitals' practice rink in Arlington, Va., hair unkempt and flashing his signature gap-toothed grin. Hundreds of red-clad fans had packed the Kettler Capitals Iceplex, which sits atop a shopping mall, just to see Ovechkin skate for five minutes. As No. 8 took the ice, grown men squealed like tween girls at a One Direction show. They loved him.
But love can be fickle. "Sometimes things change," the 27-year-old left winger says. "I still love them, but maybe they don't love me as much."
RG3's shoes used to be Ovi's skates. After electrifying the league as a 20-year-old rookie in the 2005-06 season, Ovechkin owned DC in 2008, at a time when the Nationals, Wizards and Redskins were barely relevant. At season's end, Ovechkin had won the NHL scoring title, goals title and MVP -- Washington's first in any sport in 25 years -- and signed a then-record 13-year, $124 million deal. To cap off the season, he even got the key to the city.
All that individual success, however, has yet to translate to the postseason. The Caps have made the playoffs five straight seasons -- switching personnel, head coaches and playing styles along the way -- but they have yet to advance past the second round with Ovechkin. His production has dwindled too, from a career-high 65 goals in 2007-08 to a total of 70 over the past two seasons.
Some locals have started pointing fingers at the Russian sniper. Ovechkin was voted Worst Local Athlete this summer in a reader poll conducted by the Washingtonian. A senior editor for the magazine, Denise Wills, admits to being taken aback by the results of the poll, whose methodology was never revealed. The result seems especially odd given that Ovi was deemed the city's Local Hero in the same poll just last year -- and that he's still, you know, very, very good. Ovechkin is taking the backlash in stride. "Of course the fans want us to win the Cup. We want to win it for them and for us," he says from Russia, where he is playing his lockout hockey with Dynamo Moscow. "But we've found that it takes a mixture of things to win, and we need to find the right mixture."
The Caps hope the hiring of offensive-minded coach Adam Oates will rejuvenate Ovechkin's goal-scoring ways in his eighth NHL season, whenever it begins. But ultimately, Ovi says, "that shouldn't matter as long as we win."
So allow this to serve as a warning to the new star in town: Eye-popping highlight reels and a winning personality are great. Long playoff runs are better.