He's only 25 years old, but already Alex Ovechkin has reached that point in the program where he will be judged quite fairly by what he does in the playoffs.
The sellouts at Verizon Center, the two MVP awards, the scoring championships and the regular-season awards mean relatively little after two quick playoff exits. Ovechkin, undeniably great as he is, has more MVPs than playoff series victories at this point of his career, 2-1. It's not the ratio a superstar is looking for. And although it's a team game, the playoffs belong to stars, and criticism falls hard on the ones who go home before they should, as Alex Rodriguez found out for the longest time and as LeBron James is all too aware of right now.
Perhaps the best sign as Ovechkin leads the Washington Capitals into the playoffs against the New York Rangers is that all the pivotal figures in the Washington camp are willing to face the facts. With Sidney Crosby's status for the playoffs still uncertain (and our apologies to the Sedin brothers, who played so well all season), Ovechkin's name is atop the NHL playoff marquee. And to Ovechkin's credit, when the subject of the Capitals' postseason woes was broached after practice Tuesday, he said, "Everybody knows in the regular season we dominated the last couple of years. But right now, we've tried to build toward the playoffs. ... Sometimes you just know when you have to play better, to do something well at the right time."
So maybe it's not a problem Ovechkin had the lowest-scoring season of his NHL career. It's not like Ovechkin was the only Capital whose scoring was down in the regular season. While the captain went from 50 goals to 32, Alexander Semin went from 40 goals to 28, Nicklas Backstrom from 33 to 18 and Brooks Laich from 25 to 16. It was by design, if you will, since a December whitewash by the Rangers led coach Bruce Boudreau to overhaul the team's approach on the fly. The Capitals went from an elite offensive team last season to one of the best defensive teams in the league this season. Of the change, Boudreau said, "The best players on our team have scored and won all kinds of awards and accolades. The thing they haven't done is win it all."
Ovechkin did score some points with Boudreau and owner Ted Leonsis for totally embracing the change of style even though it was clear his scoring would be reduced.
"I feel beholden to Alex. Not only did we draft and develop him, but he said to us, 'I like it here. I believe in the fans here. I believe in the team, so I'll commit to 13 years in Washington, D.C.,'" Leonsis said. "Just compare that to what happened in Cleveland with a two-time MVP, a great player who had earned all kinds of awards and accolades but hadn't won a championship. ...
"[Ovechkin] did something remarkable," Leonsis added, "in that he'd been saying individual stats weren't a motivator for him anymore, that he'd already won MVPs and scoring titles. When a system changes and it affects the star's stats, the star can break the system and he can break the coach. But Alex totally embraced the new system. He said, 'I'll do whatever we need to win in the playoffs.'"
And so, the Capitals are talking defense and goaltending this spring, which is a 180 spin-o-rama from the past few years, when Ovechkin was up over 50 goals. Still, systems might facilitate the star, but the star has to carry the team.
If there's anything good about starting slow and coming on late, Ovechkin's timing could be good. The Capitals believe he's played better over the past 20 games than at any other time this season.
"I'm probably like everybody else out there who thinks he's sitting there and saying, 'This is my time.' He didn't have the season that he wanted to have, statistically," Boudreau said. "If you know his character, he wants to be on top. ... He realizes how much criticism everybody took last year, from the coach down to the trainer. I don't know how it's going to turn out, but I know he's going to be extremely ready. I hope he's not too ready and tries to do too much ... like the basketball player who wants the ball all the time and takes 37 shots in a game and hits only seven but wants it anyway because he thinks he has to have it. We want him to play within the concept of what we're doing, but I think he'll be really good."
It's as though everybody within the organization is holding his breath, hoping Ovechkin gets off to a great start against the Rangers. Funny thing is, Ovechkin's playoff numbers -- 20 goals, 20 assists in 28 games -- are pretty darned impressive. But perception often trumps reality in these matters. And it's very real that while Ovechkin has lost back-to-back seven-game series, the person to whom he will always be compared, Crosby, has won a Stanley Cup (in 2009 by going through Ovechkin in Washington in Game 7) and an Olympic gold medal (in 2010 by going through Ovi and Team Russia in the quarterfinals).
Even as Crosby waits to see when he might be cleared for play, Ovechkin is in his rearview mirror.
"The great players don't feel sorry for themselves; they get madder and they go at it," Boudreau said. "Last year was an overall tough year for him ... the Olympics and the overall pressure of that, then the playoffs. [But] you have a great playoff series and you won't hear a word of 'Oh yeah, but what about the Caps? What about Ovi?' I don't think there's a great player in sports who doesn't want the pressure, who it doesn't make their juices flow."
It's not like Boudreau has spent all his time worrying about Ovechkin. The man who spent 32 years in the minors, as a player and then as a coach, decided in recent days to make changes in the way he approached the playoffs.
"Usually," he said, "I do a whole lot of video presentation, including what you might call a 'pump up' video to get them excited ... but I didn't this year. This is business right now. No frills. No movies about how great you are or anything else. Let's just get to the nuts and bolts of it.
"We've waited a long time to have the chance to do this again. It's like the day before Christmas, where you're anxious to get this thing going. I think we're ready," Boudreau added. "As a coaching staff, we're trying to leave no stone unturned, but at the same time, we've tried not to make it so complicated that all they're thinking about is 'What am I supposed to do?' We want them to just play. It's a fine line, and I keep asking my assistant coaches, 'Is this the right thing to do?' I want to make sure we're not overdoing everything because of our [recent] history."
Of course, Ovechkin's performance is going to have everything to do with whether Boudreau's changes -- the emphasis on defense or the new no-frills approach to the playoffs -- will ultimately be successful. Ovechkin says he has changed nothing.
"Me? I've kept the same routine," he said. "I'm going to do the same thing. Pressure? No, I don't feel any pressure at all. I know everybody is asking me that, saying that. Me? I'm ready ... I feel great. I feel the same as I do every year: I want to win the Cup."
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.