It all started with Alex Ovechkin closing his eyes and dropping his head back in an almost tranquil way. He was the picture of relief, finally leading the Washington Capitals through to the conference finals. The moment was so captivating for its honesty, Ovechkin reacting as if a literal weight had been lifted off him as he raised both arms. What’s turning into the spring of Ovechkin can be told through a series of clips like that one, the body language and emotion so endearingly transparent.
Whether it was that Ovechkin exhalation when Washington finally beat Pittsburgh, or his two-handed smash of a stick against the crossbar when the Capitals struggled against Tampa Bay in Game 4 of the conference finals, or the way Ovechkin covered his face with both gloves in disbelief after goaltender Braden Holtby made “The Save” in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, Ovechkin has been the GIF that’s kept on giving. The cameras — there are considerably more of them at this stage — are drawn to him, and Ovechkin has unabashedly worn his emotions while well aware of the spotlight.
“It’s a great study in human emotions,” coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s gone through them all in the playoffs.”
His competency as the Capitals’ captain was questioned for years as Washington repeatedly flamed out in the playoffs, but what Ovechkin brings to the team has been clearly captured in six-second clips this postseason.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik is the consummate professional, an example for others to follow. Center Nicklas Backstrom is the Capitals’ brain, his cerebral and responsible two-way play earning the respect of the locker room. Ovechkin, however, is the team’s heart and emotional center. His reactions to pivotal moments in this deep playoff run have mirrored that of Capitals fans, both parties new to the stage and allowing excitement to trump apprehension.
Ovechkin has been cool and composed off the ice but passionate on it, and the rest of the Capitals have followed his lead. With Washington just one win away from a first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history, up three games to one in the series against Vegas, the team now has to manage a dreaded two-day break before playing again. Perhaps just like their captain, the Capitals will tame their emotions leading up to the game — and then feed off them once the puck drops.
“I’m enjoying it,” Ovechkin said. “I think the people who play in this to four rounds, you just enjoy the moment. Maybe you’re never going to have a chance to play one more time like that. I think everybody understand it, and we have fun and we enjoy the moment.”
From the moment Ovechkin raised both arms up and hung his head back, part triumphant and part relieved as the Capitals celebrated their second-round series win against the Penguins, he’s become “must-see” theater for NBC. With Washington about to beat the Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, Ovechkin hugged forward Tom Wilson and then pumped his fists as he opened his mouth wide to scream. For two games in a row now, NBC has rolled packages of compelling Ovechkin reactions to teammates or plays in the game. Thanks to camera-sharing with the Canadian networks also broadcasting the Stanley Cup finals, one camera is dedicated to Ovechkin at all times. Is that the case for anyone else in this final series against the Golden Knights?
“No, not 100 percent of the time,” said Matt Marvin, who’s producing the Stanley Cup Final for NBC. “That can change situationally if someone were to do something in the game that demanded that we keep an eye on this guy all of the time because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but we make that decision in-game. The only player that we know going into a game that is going to be on a camera 100 percent of the time isolated would be Alex. . . .
“Usually you’re just focusing on the player who made the play, but now with the way Alex has been, you think, ‘What was Alex doing at that time?’ So, that really becomes at the forefront of your thought process. We’ve got this great play, so let’s find the play that Holtby made, let’s find how happy he is and is there any dejection on the other side? And then, ‘What did Alex do?’ He just emotes so well.”
Marvin said Ovechkin’s reaction to Holtby’s save was the most memorable of the postseason so far. “He’s been a reaction-type guy his whole career, but once they got over that hump, once they beat Pittsburgh, everything after that point was new for him, and you knew after that, he doesn’t hide anything, which is the beautiful part about it because it just kind of humanizes him,” Marvin said.
The same feeling provoked in the TV viewer at home is also often felt by those next to him who are caught in the background of the quick viral clips. Ovechkin’s on-ice personality has taken some criticism before, particularly his enthusiastic goal celebrations in a sport that prizes humility. But the Capitals have long argued that Ovechkin is just as excited when someone else scores. As he’s turned into a living emoji keyboard over the past month, teammates have been amused by how his reactions have been embraced on social media. For them, it’s what they’ve witnessed for years finally evident to everyone else.
“Yeah, they’re pretty funny,” forward T.J. Oshie said of the Ovechkin GIFs. “He wears his heart on his sleeve. I think anyone who knows him or anyone who’s watched any hockey with Ovi involved knows he cares a lot about the team and you can just see it by his expressions on the bench.”
After the Capitals beat the Lightning in Game 7 to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, Ovechkin was so emotional that he struggled to collect his thoughts after the game. Imagine his reaction if Washington wins just one more game and Ovechkin gets to hoist a Stanley Cup with everyone watching his every move.
“You could tell emotionally, he’s totally invested,” Trotz said. “You could probably do a documentary just on the different emotions he’s had throughout all these series. It’s actually great to see. In this game, we sometimes become a little bit muted because of things that are said or are taken out of context - sorry people, but they are - and to see a guy just leave his emotions out there, I think that’s refreshing to you people and to the human spirit. I think it’s really interesting to see how emotionally, when you’re invested the way he is and how much it means to him, how much you can have an effect on the game.”