Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin has taken center stage throughout the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, not only for his scoring exploits but also his open displays of emotion. Is this any different than in postseasons past?
Has Ovechkin actually changed his game this postseason, or have perceptions about him changed?
Greg Wyshynski, senior hockey writer: I think it's more perception of what Alex Ovechkin has accomplished this postseason than any material change in his game, with one caveat that we'll address in a moment.
First, know that the perception of his improvement comes from two places: media critics like Mike Milbury, who is now saying that Ovechkin is "new and improved" because his criticism of Ovi's previous playoff accomplishments was good for ratings; and coach Barry Trotz, who has said Ovechkin is "redefining himself" and has challenged him to reclaim his greatness after a down year in 2016-17.
Many of the things he's receiving praise for this postseason -- consistent scoring, takeaways, being dangerous on most shifts -- are things he's done deftly in the past, although his 1.14 points per game this postseason is his highest since 2010. Where there is a difference for Ovechkin this postseason: the effective nature of his offensive contributions. Having a hand in three game winners against the Penguins. Scoring critically timed goals in road wins over Tampa in Games 1 and 2, and then the first goal of Game 7 that (probability-wise) put the Caps in the driver's seat. The power-play goal in the second period of Game 2 against the Knights. The opening goal of Game 3 on home ice, and so on.
Again, the timeliness of these goals isn't the byproduct of some material change to Ovechkin's game, unless you believe that a psychological edge is a change in his game. There's no question that he's having more fun, playing unburdened and leading this charge in a way he hadn't necessarily in years past. Although that might just be my perception.
Emily Kaplan, national hockey reporter: Remember GM Brian MacLellan's public plea to Ovechkin at this time last year, after yet another early playoff ouster?
"He's getting into the low 30s, and he's going to have to think of ways that he can evolve into a player that still has a major impact on the game," MacLellan said. "The game is getting faster; he's going to have to train in a different way, a more speed way than a power way. He's going to have to make adjustments to stay relative in the game."
This was after Ovechkin's ice time was shaved to 18:22 that season, more than two minutes below his career average, and he tallied only 33 goals, his lowest total in a non-lockout season.
The funny thing is, Ovechkin rebounded, winning yet another Rocket Richard Trophy, while leading all Capitals forwards in ice time, but I don't think Ovechkin looks all that different than he did, say, two seasons ago. It appears 2016-17 was just an off season for him. The Capitals have committed to a defensive identity more than in years past, and MacLellan has talked about how Ovechkin has bought into those systems.
While Barry Trotz is gushing that this is "the most complete level you've seen of Ovi" -- a day after his captain laid it out for a blocked shot, scored a gritty goal after relentlessly pursuing a rebound and once again provided insta-GIF-able emotions on the bench -- the truth is, most of us knew Ovechkin always had this in him. We're just not used to seeing him play all the way through June, so everything is under a microscope. And borrowing from the Capitals' slogan these playoffs: You know what? It's OK to believe.
Chris Peters, hockey prospects analyst: While there is some truth to Trotz saying Ovechkin is playing his most complete hockey right now, the Capitals captain never got the credit he deserved because of the team results. He had his bad moments and bad series like all players do, but 115 points in 119 career playoff games and essentially averaging a goal every other game is insane. Maybe Ovechkin is playing with a bit more desperation this year, but he's never lacked for effort or intensity in the playoffs.
His reactions on the bench have become the go-to shot for the TV broadcasts, and am I ever enjoying that. The emotion and passion he's played with throughout his career seems to be amped up just a little bit in this series. Now he's two wins away from getting that elusive Stanley Cup, and he's a driving force behind his team's success to date. If the Caps win, this should get the doubters off Ovechkin's back. But I'm not sure they should have been there in the first place.