Mark Madden: Marc-Andre Fleury will get the best of Alex Ovechkin again
Penguins fans enjoy belittling Alex Ovechkin. He's not the player Sidney Crosby is.
Actually, that's not belittling. That's plain fact.
But Ovechkin is, by far, the premier goal-scorer of his era. Given how offense mostly has been choked out of hockey, that puts the Washington left winger among the top goal-scorers ever by any means of estimation.
Ovechkin has 607 goals in 1,003 NHL games. Ovechkin, 32, could get to 800 goals; 802 would place him second all-time.
Until this year, Ovechkin's Capitals never had been past the second round of the playoffs, let alone won a Stanley Cup. The Penguins eliminated them three times in Ovechkin's previous 12 seasons.
But the Capitals' failures weren't fueled by Ovechkin.
Before this spring, Ovechkin had 46 goals and 44 assists in 97 career playoff games. That's elite production.
But Ovechkin never netted that defining goal, the tally that put the Capitals over the top.
In particular, he never scored that goal on Marc-Andre Fleury.
In 2009, Fleury stopped Ovechkin's Game 7 breakaway. In last spring's Game 7, Ovechkin launched a blast from the slot that appeared labeled. But Fleury turned it aside with the shaft of his stick.
Luck? Sure. Winners get lucky.
In these playoffs, Ovechkin has 12 goals and 10 assists in 19 games. He finally got the Capitals past the second round. To the Stanley Cup Final, in fact.
Ovechkin's goal 62 seconds into Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final at Tampa Bay sucked the air out of the building and the life out of the Lightning.
But Ovechkin still hasn't got the best of Fleury in a playoff situation.
Now, he gets another chance.
The Capitals play Fleury's Vegas Golden Knights in the final, enabling Pittsburgh to live vicariously through the beloved ex-Penguins goaltender.
It also enables Penguins fans to root against Ovechkin and to debate ad nauseam whether the Penguins should have kept Fleury, not Matt Murray.
It's not like Ovechkin has been stymied continuously by Fleury. Ovechkin has 22 goals in 38 career regular-season games against Fleury, 10 goals in 14 postseason contests. That's 32 goals in 52 games. Above and beyond.
But he never scored a goal that beat Fleury in a playoff series.
Can he get it in the Stanley Cup Final?
Even though Pittsburgh will be passionately pulling for Fleury, some respect (however grudging) should be accorded Ovechkin.
He has been the worthiest of foes, a gap-toothed pantomime Russian villain straight out of Central Casting, a steamrolling semi-dirty one-timing marksman who might be in a class with Crosby but packs a totally different style and demeanor. The contrast has been a big part of the fun.
Ovechkin plays tough but fair. He is, by all accounts, a good guy.
If his Capitals win four more games, Ovechkin almost certainly gets the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. If not, Fleury gets it. The renewal of this rivalry is an extremely direct showdown.
Fleury has been absolutely amazing all season and in these playoffs. His Golden Knights have been the same.
It's hard to remember a team that has executed like Vegas over the course of an entire season. They started 8-1, haven't had a losing streak longer than three games, and are the NHL's fastest team (like the Penguins used to be).
When a first-year team can coalesce so brilliantly and immediately, it explodes the theory of building chemistry.
GM George McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant should win executive and coach of the year, respectively. The awards should be re-named after them.
It's a classic matchup. Two teams looking for their first Stanley Cup. One has been around since 1974, the other since October. Ovechkin vs. Fleury. McPhee's old team vs. McPhee's new team. Washington's star power vs. Vegas' balance. The Golden Knights have four second lines.
The Golden Knights will cap the most unlikely run in hockey history by winning the Stanley Cup in six games. Close but no cigar for Ovechkin, but he will have proven much.
But probably not enough for Penguins fans.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).