It was no more than 20 minutes after the Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup when NBC's Keith Jones spoke into his microphone. There was Alex Ovechkin, as happy and professionally complete as he's ever been, celebrating on the ice with teammates, friends, family and the Stanley Cup he just paraded around the ice in Las Vegas, when Jones relayed the thoughts that had just entered his brain.
Jones said, and this is paraphrasing: "PK Subban said earlier he thought Alex Ovechkin was the best Russian hockey player of all time," a reasonable statement from one of the game's best players serving as a guest commentator for NBC, "but I'd like to see Ovechkin win another Cup first."
In a way, even with Ovechkin destroying all the flawed perceptions about who he is as a person and player after finally winning the Cup (and a Conn Smythe Trophy) after 13 years with the Capitals, it's comforting to know that there will always be an ill-informed, misguided segment of the hockey population that still won't understand or accept Ovechkin's greatness. There will always be detractors holding Ovechkin to unfair standards and moving the goalposts for reasons even they probably don't fully understand anymore.
Ovechkin could drown at a Vegas pool party in the early hours of Friday morning and he would die the greatest Russian player in NHL history, despite Jones clinging to a scam that requires another championship to placate critics that can never be placated. Assuming there's a lifeguard on duty, Ovechkin will eventually retire as the all-time leader in goals, points, power-play goals and game-winning goals among Russian-born players and will forever be the first Russian-born captain of a Stanley Cup champion.
It was one thing to knock Ovechkin because he never won a Cup, but now that he has one, he needs two? What happens if he wins a second Cup? Does he need to discover a cheap source of renewable energy to be considered on the same level as Brett Hull? If this shit doesn't end now, when will it end? Because if you're still proffering ideas like this after this season, you're clearly running a grift in which nobody can ever escape, not even you, the grifter.
Ovechkin went through his critics' greatest hits and destroyed them all in glorious fashion during Game 5.
Remember when Ovechkin's defensive play was routinely criticized (rightfully so at times)? Pierre-Edouard Bellemare stole the puck from Ovechkin and took off on a shorthanded breakaway with Vegas leading 3-2 in the third period. Ovechkin chased down Bellemare and knocked the puck away without taking a penalty. Five minutes later, Devante Smith-Pelly and Lars Eller scored to give the Caps a 4-3 lead and Ovechkin blocked a shot in the final minutes to help preserve that lead.
Remember when Ovechkin didn't care about winning and was a selfish player? Has anyone ever experienced the same levels of ecstasy as Ovechkin experienced this postseason when a teammate scored a goal? Have you ever felt the immense sense of pleasure Ovechkin displayed when he handed the Cup to Nicklas Backstrom?
Remember when Ovechkin wasn't a big game player? He had a go-ahead goal in the second period, led the team with five shots and rang another shot off the post. There was hardly a moment during the Final or this Cup run when Ovechkin wasn't a terrifying nightmare hell-bent on doing everything he could to unshackle himself from the prison of all these hot takes and wild theories that were better suited for Infowars than any legitimate hockey pundit.
Ovechkin needing this championship to justify his greatness was a lie all along, perpetrated by the dimmest and most hardheaded hockey thinkers. A team championship as a measure of individual greatness is the idiot's token to cross the moron's bridge of validation, and while Ovechkin needed this Cup for himself to sleep at night, he certainly didn't need it to gain passage from an imagined losers club to a special winners society.
When the Capitals failed to get past the second round the past two postseasons after winning the Presidents' Trophy in the regular season, it was difficult to foresee a scenario in which Ovechkin would win a Cup in Washington. Those were deep teams that repeatedly hit the Pittsburgh Penguins wall and with that depth ravaged by free agency and the salary cap, the window looked closed on Ovechkin.
If that had been true, why would the world have blamed Ovechkin, who pulled his weight the past two seasons? Why is everyone capable of sprouting a full erection while whimsically talking about the marvelous team concept that drives hockey championships and pretending it's all on one player when a team falls short? If things had gone sideways in Game 5 and the final two games against Vegas, would that have altered your view of Ovechkin from what it is now? Because the big difference between this postseason and others is Ovechkin did what he always does but this time he got help that had been sorely lacking for more than a decade.
Barring injury or early retirement, Ovechkin will reach at least 700 goals and 1,300 points. He is currently averaging more goals per game (0.605) than Wayne Gretzky (0.601), the NHL's career goals king. No active player with at least 40 postseason games is averaging more goals per game in the playoffs than Ovechkin. If Ovechkin was Alex Rodriguez-ing every postseason you could make a case that he was a monumental disappointment and choker but he's been nearly a point per game player in the playoffs for a decade.
Ovechkin's game has evolved over his career, sure, but if you're shoehorning an "Ovechkin has changed" narrative into an "Ovechkin isn't a winner" narrative you were pushing as recently as last season to explain this Cup run, please consider that Ovechkin has been the same force for years but this was the year his teammates were the ones who changed.
Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov had by far their best postseasons. Braden Holtby has been better statistically in the past but this year he delivered the consistency that was lacking the last two years. Tom Wilson had four points the previous two postseasons yet he found time to post five goals and 15 points in 21 games this year in between his felonious hits. Smith-Pelly scored big goals. Eller scored big goals. John Carlson had 20 points this postseason after posting just four in 13 games last year.
The difference this postseason compared to all the others wasn't Ovechkin finally understanding what it takes to win; it was Ovechkin, one of the sport's all-time greats, finally getting more help from his teammates.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports CA.