Washington’s Alex Ovechkin won his third Hart Trophy this past weekend making him a three-time Most Valuable Player. Deservedly so. At the same time, Ovechkin is no longer the NHL’s top player, a designation that belongs to Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, who won the Ted Lindsay Award in a vote of his peers.
The difference between the Caps and the Penguins surely helped Ovechkin edge Crosby for the Hart in the closest balloting in 11 years.
The Penguins cruised to the top of the Eastern Conference even though Crosby missed a quarter of their games with injuries. In contrast, the Caps closed with a rush to win the weak Southeast Division thanks largely to Ovechkin exploding for 23 goals during the final 23 games of the lockout-shortened season.
Washington was 17-4-2 during those 23 games as Ovechkin, who had played his entire career as a left wing, adjusted to the right wing where rookie coach Adam Oates moved him before the season in hopes of freeing up more room for the superstar to operate. Ovechkin scored just nine goals in the first 25 games as Washington got off to a shaky 10-14-1 start before the new position became second nature.
“Big thanks to my linemates, teammates and all the coaching staff, trainers,” Ovechkin said when informed that he had won his third MVP. “They do great job, especially coaching staff. They put me on the right wing. It was kind of hard, but as everybody knows I like challenges. It was big challenge for me and for coaching staff, but we make it. … It’s big pleasure for me to have this award. It means a lot.”
The Great Eight certainly meant a lot to the Caps, who were 19-3-2 when he put a puck in the opposing net, 8-15-1 when he failed to do so. That imbalance made Ovechkin a supreme difference-maker and the MVP.
Ovechkin has now completed a Hart Trophy hat trick, a feat matched or topped by just seven players in NHL history. But there’s a huge difference between the 27-year-old Russian and the others and it’s not that he’s the only European on the list.
Wayne Gretzky (a record nine Hart Trophies), Gordie Howe (six) and the late Eddie Shore (four) were voted MVP often more than Ovechkin. Bobby Clarke, Mario Lemieux, the late Howie Morenz and Bobby Orr are his fellow three-time Hart winners.
However, each of those Hall of Famers also won at least two Stanley Cups. Gretzky, Howe and Morenz doubled that team success by all having their names engraved on Lord Stanley’s hardware four times.
Eight years into Ovechkin’s career and the Caps haven’t even reached a conference final, let alone played for or captured the Cup. Washington has won just three of nine playoff series during the Ovechkin era after being shut out in the final two games of the seven-game Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the New York Rangers last month. Those failures aren’t something that Ovechkin can forget.
“I just want to be right there to play for Stanley Cup,” said Ovechkin, who had just one goal in the series which he ended with a broken left foot, suffered while blocking a shot in Game 6. “I win this one and we lose Stanley Cup. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”
But will Ovechkin and the Caps ever win the big one? The longer he goes without a title, the more he seems like a 21st century Ted Williams, the sensational hitter for the Boston Red Sox who lost the only World Series in which he played during his 18 seasons, or Dan Marino, the record-setting passer who lost the only Super Bowl he reached during his 17 years quarterbacking the Miami Dolphins.
Among the NHL’s 16 leading career scorers, only Marcel Dionne, who spent 11 of his 17 seasons laboring for the then-inconsequential Los Angeles Kings, didn’t win the Cup. With 735 points, Ovechkin is more than halfway to the 1,420 scored by the 17th career scoring leader, a guy named Oates who can certainly tell his captain about the pain of never winning a Cup during a 19-year career.
It’s certainly conceivable that Ovechkin can win two more Hart Trophies to rank third in that category behind only The Great One and Mr. Hockey. But if Ovechkin never gets to hoist the Cup in exultation, his career will be incomplete.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin