— From the moment his Washington Capitals felt the sting of yet another Stanley Cup heartbreak last spring, when they were swept aside in the second round of the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Alex Ovechkin had one goal in mind.
To come back the following season cut, chiseled, and ready to wax the opposition.
Turns out, he wasn't the only one with this idea in mind.
Madame Tussauds, the famed wax sculpture museum, announced earlier this week that it would be unveiling a wax likeness of the Washington Capitals captain at its Washington, D.C. location.
Interestingly, he's just the second NHLer to be so honored, following in the wax drippings of the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky.
Notice anyone missing on that list?
The same guy who's been MIA from the NHL since the New Year?
We're talking Sidney Crosby, and while the Caps captain was being captured in wax, his Pittsburgh counterpart and foil for the title of the NHL's best and most talked-about performer remains captured in a fog.
The Penguins announced earlier this week that Crosby, still suffering from the effects of post-concussion syndrome, would begin the season on injured reserve, his return to the game remaining as uncertain as it has been since he was originally injured in January.
With Crosby's regaining of his form remaining shrouded in mystery, it makes a return to form by Ovechkin mandatory — for the Capitals, to be contenders, and for the NHL to increase its relevance.
“It's time for Alex Ovechkin, one of the great players in the game, and one of the great hard workers in the game, to work with the intelligence that's necessary to be effective,” said NBC Sports analyst Mike Milbury. “To play within the system that the coaches are outlining.”
Certainly, he'll need to be significantly better than he was last season. Ovechkin's 85-point output was the lowest of his six-season NHL career. After scoring at least 50 goals in each of the three previous seasons, including 65 during the 2007-08 campaign, Ovechkin lit the red lamp on a meager 32 occasions during 2010-11.
For the first time in his career, Ovechkin was nowhere to be found when the NHL doled out its season-ending awards.
With the NBA season in dry dock, and a return of basketball looking even more doubtful than a quick recovery by Crosby, such realities are not acceptable in the hockey world, which is being presented with a golden opportunity to increase its foothold among the American viewing audience.
The man who will be asked to carry the National Hockey League on his shoulders this season seems to understand and accept the load he'll be required to take on, both with the Capitals, and the league as a whole. He worked tirelessly this summer with Capitals strength and conditioning coach Mike Nemish, shedding nine pounds from his frame. Before training camp even opened, Ovechkin took the ice with Washington's prospects at rookie camp, setting a business-like tone for the season.
The pressure is on, and Ovechkin intends to thrive in the spotlight.
“It's all about me,” Ovechkin said. “If I have a chance to score goals, I have to score it. If I didn't score it, people are going to say, 'Okay, he's not scoring. He's not that good anymore' And if I start scoring again like that, I'm going to make a point streak like 10 games, everything's going to be back and I'm not worried about it.”
Curiously, the newest endorsement deal garnered via Ovechkin's quirky personality and gap-toothed smile is with the candy bar Mr. Big, the same chocolate treat that Gretzky stumped for during his heyday.
Appropriate indeed, for if the NHL is to get bigger, Ovechkin must also be its Mr. Big.
The comparisons between Ovechkin, the top pick in the 2004 NHL entry draft, and Crosby, the first overall selection in 2005, were inevitable from the get-go, driven even more by the fact that both men broke into the NHL until the 2005-06 season, due to the lockout the scuttled the 2004-05 campaign.
In a battle of personalities, the effervescent Ovechkin is the clear-cut winner over the more stoic, keep-to-himself Crosby.
"Ovie has a very outgoing personality, upbeat, up-tempo and that's contagious within a group,” said Penguins forward Matt Cooke, who's been an NHL teammate of both players. “It's no secret that Ovechkin loves to score. That's probably his purest thing. Ovechkin, when anybody on the team scores, he's the happiest guy in the world. It doesn't matter who it is, he loves that.
“He wants to win, too and he'll do other things, like blocking shots, in order to make that happen."
“Sid's the same. He's got a tireless work ethic and that's contagious. He wants to win. He's willing to pay the price, to do anything it takes to take care of that first," Cooke said. "It's different, but they still have the same effect on their dressing room, their group.”
Like all great sporting rivalries, whether it be Magic and Bird on the hardwood, Brady and Manning on the gridiron, or Nadal and Federer on the court, the ultimate decision maker in determining who's the best is generally measured by the number of titles won.
Currently, Crosby leads 1-0 in that category, having led the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup.
Ovechkin holds a significant edge in playoff heartbreak. The Capitals have reigned as the NHL's next legendary team in waiting for some years now, and as the great philosopher Homer Simpson once noted, “The waiting game sucks.”
“The Montreal Canadiens, when they were run by Frank Selke and Sam Pollock, always used to tell their players one thing before their season started,” NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said. “Win your last game on home ice. Chances are, if you do that, you're going to win the Stanley Cup.”
In three of the past four springs, the Capitals have lost Game 7 of a playoff series on home ice.
Offseason additions appear to have strengthened Washington's resolve. Forwards Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern and Troy Brouwer bring grit to the lineup, the latter a Stanley Cup winner with Chicago in 2010. They've added veteran strength on defense (Roman Hamrlik) and in goal (Tomas Vokoun).
“I sure like what they did over the summer,” NBC Sports analyst Mike Emrick said. “I think at playoff time, a guy like Joel Ward, and another like Troy Brouwer, will make a big difference. These are two hard, passionate guys up front.
“Passion comes to the fore at playoff time, and maybe that's maybe one of the failings that the Caps have had at playoff time. They are a very well-constructed team, but that passion level needs to be higher come playoff time.”
Passion exudes from Ovechkin's every pore, but like Steve Yzerman, Mario Lemieux and Crosby before him, one player can't get the job done without a supporting cast. For Washington to take that next step, players such as forwards Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green need to loom with a much larger postseason presence.
“They've put all these other pieces in place,” Milbury said. “It's primed to go in the right direction, but at its core, a player like Ovechkin, and his sidekick Semin, have to play with passion, with intelligence within the system, and I think that's easy to do for Ovechkin, but Semin needs to get his feet wet every single night."
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, who certainly figures to be on the hot seat should his team fail to deliver the goods yet again, thinks it's far too early to write his team's epitaph as a Stanley Cup contender.
“Nobody in our core's over 26,” Boudreau said. “They're all competitors. They all want to win. We all want to win the Cup.
“They'll be ready to go. They all believe eventually that they're going to win.”
The Capitals won't go without Ovechkin firing on all cylinders.
Minus Sid The Kid, the NHL won't grow without Ovechkin delivering the goods.