Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988, and has been Newsday’s national golf writer since 2002.
ARLINGTON, Va. - Just once in this postseason, Alex Ovechkin would like to lose. He would love to lose the dubious honor of being the greatest current National Hockey League player never to have won the Stanley Cup.
Of course, it is not fair to judge the Capitals' captain and superstar the way we gauge pro golfers -- the best to have never won a major championship -- because hockey is a team sport with thousands of variables that no individual can control. It is not his fault if the goalie lets in a soft one or if management drafts the wrong players.
Fair or not, though, it is part of the game. Elite athletes always are viewed as missing something until they have that first ring. You saw it with Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby. And LeBron James. So every time the Capitals make the playoffs, Ovechkin has a new chance to polish his legacy. He also has another burden to carry.
His team will be counting on him as much as ever Friday night as the Capitals try to avoid going down two games to none in the first-round series against the Islanders.
He will be rested. Coach Barry Trotz, rather than browbeating his players about the 4-1 loss, made practice optional Thursday, and Ovechkin was one of a bunch who opted to take the day off. That scenario reflected the coach's considerate philosophy that helped Ovechkin, 29, achieve his sixth 50-goal season (only Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky have had more) and his fifth Maurice Richard Trophy as the league's leading goal-scorer (runner-up Steven Stamkos had 10 fewer than his 53).
Trotz, having introduced himself to his star during a heart-to-heart, three-hour offseason dinner in Las Vegas, also inspired Ovechkin to play defense, improving his plus/minus rating from minus-35 last season to plus-10.
Trotz knows Ovechkin was neither bad nor great in Game 1. "But that goes for the whole group," he said. "There were a lot of good things. He was trying to generate shots. One of the things about Ovi is that there is such an emphasis on him scoring goals for this franchise over the whole time he has been here. When you fall down a [goal] or two, you've still got to maintain the 200-foot game because if you get away from that, they can make it 3-1 and you're chasing even more."
The Capitals know that Ovechkin actually is a good postseason performer, averaging .53 goals per game. They know he is more than his statistics, too.
"He's always known as a shooter, but to be able to watch him and see some of his plays, you're more of a fan," teammate Troy Brouwer said.
Said teammate Eric Fehr, "He's playing some of his best hockey right now and he's really showing why he's one of the best players in the world. You can see him make something out of nothing a lot. Every time he touches the puck, you can kind of see the crowd moving to the edge of their seats."
Ovechkin can be disarmingly honest. When he was reminded early this season that he has a phenomenal record at Nassau Coliseum, 20 goals in 18 career games, he was asked what he likes about the place. He said, "Not much."
He can be deliberately mischievous or playful, having made an impassioned plea (in vain) to be picked last for the choose-up-sides NHL All-Star Game because the last guy gets a car.
"He's always like that," Fehr said. "He's definitely a character, and I think that's why he's so well liked around the league by fans. He's got a personality and he's not afraid to show it. Some buildings, he gets booed, but I think they all appreciate what he does."
But everyone around the game knows that he would be seen in a whole different light if his name were on that Cup.