Alexander Ovechkin returned to the Washington Capitals' lineup Monday night, with predictable results. He scored twice - again, giving him 20 goals for the season; and his Capitals team won - again, for the sixth game in a row.
A year ago, the Capitals were viewed in many quarters as the Greatest Show On Ice. Finally on Monday, it became official. Their win leapfrogged the Capitals over the San Jose Sharks and into top spot in the NHL's overall standings.
It represented a significant stride for an organization known mostly as an NHL afterthought for much of its 36-year incarnation, but what mattered more was how they got there. Ovechkin was just returning to the lineup following a two-game NHL suspension for kneeing the Carolina Hurricanes' Tim Gleason. Without Ovechkin in the lineup, the Capitals merely ripped in 14 goals; and won both times. Overall, they are 6-2 without Ovechkin in the lineup after he missed six games earlier this season as a result of an upper body injury.
Publicly, the Capitals were not happy about Ovechkin's suspension, which sparked a debate about whether he needed to amend his reckless, all-out attacking style. It was a silly discussion really and almost irrelevant.
You knew Ovechkin was not going to change the way he plays and you also know he shouldn't. What makes him effective is also what makes him tops at the box office - the ability to play on the edge, and more importantly, to execute plays on the edge.
Any hint of tentativeness would greatly reduce his impact. It might create more longevity but at what price? Thus far - until this year anyway - Ovechkin has been happily spared injuries of any kind. He missed only four games in his first four years, and two were to return to Russia for the funeral of his grandfather.
What the Capitals either don't realize, or don't acknowledge, is how Ovechkin's little two-game ban was actually a blessing in disguise. It helped him heal for starters; but far more importantly, it also demonstrated to every player on their team that they can now play at an elite level, even without their most important contributor.
This is a pivotal part in the evolution of any championship team, which is what the Capitals imagine they are, after making the playoffs in each of the past two years, and pushing the Pittsburgh Penguins to the limit in the second round last spring.
The Penguins ultimately won last year's championship, putting Ovechkin's rival, Sidney Crosby, one up in terms of their personal battle.
But the Penguins' evolution was greatly enhanced these past two seasons by the adversity they faced. Two years ago, when Crosby missed 29 games with a high ankle sprain, Evgeni Malkin stepped up his level of play and picked up virtually all of the scoring slack. When Crosby returned, the Penguins were measurably better overall.
In a similar vein, all of the defencemen the Penguins have lost to injury over the past two seasons - including Sergei Gonchar for much of last year - helped fast track the development of Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, two emerging youngsters.
In Ovechkin's absence - and also that of Alexander Semin, his fellow Russian partner in crime, who has missed nine games this year already too - the Capitals discovered secondary scoring from the likes of Eric Fehr and Tomas Fleischmann. Brenden Morrison and Mike Knuble have been effective free-agent replacements for Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov, both of whom went home to play in the Kontinental Hockey League. The net effect of those changes has been to add an element of grit, without surrendering too much in the skill department.
Ultimately, the Capitals will only go so far as their goaltending will take them, but that was true of Pittsburgh as well. Until Marc-Andre Fleury actually answered the questions about whether he could win in the playoffs, there was always that lingering uncertainty; that he might falter in the heat of the battle. He had in the past. Last year, he didn't.
The Capitals' answer to Fleury is the young Russian, Semyon Varlamov, who is just 21 years old and in his first full NHL season. Varlamov's start was a little iffy, but his numbers are hard to dispute now - a 12-1-2 record to go with a 4-0-1 mark that he established in six regular-season appearances last year. Or to put it another way, in Varlamov's first 20 NHL decisions, he has lost just one game in regulation time.
Varlamov is coming off a shutout of the Tampa Bay Lightning; if his development proceeds without a hiccup, the Capitals look poised to take that next step into the championship circle. Now, nobody wins the Stanley Cup in December - something the Sharks know only too well. But right now, the Capitals look as if they're the real thing; and if they are, and if they bring that first championship to Washington next June, then a small part of the celebration can be traced back to these past six weeks, when Ovechkin was forced to watch and the Capitals didn't miss a beat.