ARLINGTON, Va. — Alex Ovechkin‘s expiring contract might have been the dominant story for the Washington Capitals at the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs if he were another player on another team.
But on the eve of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup First Round against the Boston Bruins on Saturday (7:15 p.m ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS), neither side seems to be fretting over the idea of the 35-year-old forward possibly becoming an unrestricted free agent.
“I’m not worried about it,” the Washington captain said. “Why do I have to worry about it?”
As Ovechkin did in 2008, when he signed a 13-year, $124 million contract, he is negotiating without an agent. They’ve agreed to put talks on hold until after the playoffs, so Ovechkin can focus on trying to help Washington win the Stanley Cup for a second time.
That speaks to the comfort level Ovechkin has built with owner Ted Leonis and the Capitals during his 16 seasons. They each expressed their desire for him to remain with Washington for his entire NHL career.
So it seems to be only a matter of when he will re-sign and for how long.
“Alex has been around a long, long time and has a lot of trust and confidence in us and knows the most important thing right now is to focus on the playoffs, and that’s where we are,” Leonsis said. “And I’m not concerned. He’s not concerned. Our concern is the Boston Bruins.”
The memory of the Capitals’ first Stanley Cup championship in 2018 remains fresh, but losing in the first round of the playoffs the past two seasons was a reminder of how difficult it is to win and the importance of taking advantage of opportunities. Washington believes it has another after navigating a demanding regular season to go 36-15-5 and finish second in the MassMutual East Division.
“We want to win,” Ovechkin said. “We want to win. We want to get another Cup for the city and for us.”
Having their captain focused and healthy is essential to those Stanley Cup chances. Ovechkin endured perhaps his most challenging regular season, missing a career-high 11 games. That included four games in NHL COVID-19 protocol from Jan. 20-29 and seven during an eight-game stretch from April 24-May 8 because of a lower-body injury. He returned to play in the regular-season finale, a 2-1 win against the Bruins on Tuesday.
Prior to this season, Ovechkin missed more than four games once, in 2009-10, when he sat out six games with a shoulder injury and was suspended for four games.
“It was strange, but obviously, we all understand I have to be ready for the playoffs,” he said. “So we were not rushing. If it was the playoffs, I would have played, but I wanted to be 100 percent. I wanted to be sure I was healthy.”
Ovechkin mentioned the trials every NHL team and player faced with COVID-19 protocols and a compacted 56-game schedule. He played much of the first two months of the season with his wife Nastya and their sons Sergei, 2, and Ilya, who turns 1 on May 27, remaining in Russia.
It was no coincidence his goal scoring picked up after their arrival in early March. After scoring seven goals in his first 19 games, Ovechkin then scored 11 goals in 11 games.
“Of course, it helps,” Ovechkin said of his family’s arrival. “We all missed each other.”
Despite the games he missed, Ovechkin led the Capitals with 24 goals and continued to climb the NHL goals list. With 730 in his career, Ovechkin is one behind Marcel Dionne for fifth in NHL history. This season, he passed Mike Gartner (708 goals) and Phil Esposito (717) to climb from eighth to sixth.
Ovechkin scored nine power-play goals to increase his total to 269, moving ahead of Brett Hull (265) into second in NHL history, five behind Dave Andreychuk’s NHL record of 274.
“I missed (11) games,” Ovechkin said. “So whatever marks I made, I’ll take it.”
Ovechkin’s 69 goals in 136 postseason games are most among players participating in these playoffs and 18th in NHL history. His average of 0.51 goals per game is highest among active players who have played at least 50 playoff games.
Ovechkin scored nine points (four goals, five assists) when Washington was eliminated by the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games in 2019 and scored five points (four goals, one assist) in a five-game loss to the New York Islanders last season.
Some might view the games Ovechkin missed because of his injury as a sign his age his catching up to him, but Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said he doesn’t view it that way.
“When he strides and when he pushes, he’s fast,” Laviolette said. “When he hits, he’s physical. When, he shoots, it’s hard. It’s got a chance of going in the net. I don’t see a slowdown.”
So much of the talk about Ovechkin before Washington won the Stanley Cup in 2018 was about whether he’d ever win it. The Capitals hope this won’t be his last chance at it, but they want to help him make the most of the opportunity.
“My commitment, our commitment to him is to continue to have great teams, and we’ll spend to the [NHL salary cap], we’ll try to win championships,” Leonsis said. “And that’s what he’s focused on because that will be his legacy.”