The 2009-10 Washington Capitals season is all about two things: pressure and expectations.
After two Southeast Division titles and a steady advancement in the playoffs the last two seasons, fans in the district are expecting big things from the Red Rockers this year.
With the city's other sports teams floundering in mediocrity or outright futility, the pressure is on the Caps to produce a title in the nation's capital.
While other players on the Caps are under the microscope to produce for various reasons—goalies Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov, winger Alex Semin, and defenseman Mike Green, just to name a few—the ultimate pressure will fall on the team's franchise player and brightest star: the Great 8, Alex Ovechkin.
Throughout his four-year career, Ovechkin has shown himself to be hockey's most charismatic superstar. He's a YouTube highlight waiting to happen every time he hits the ice.
Individually, he's done just about everything a player can do: two Hart trophies as NHL MVP, two Rocket Richard trophies as goal-scoring champ, a scoring title, a 60-goal season, the richest contract in the game, sports magazine covers, and goofy local commercials.
The question becomes, when does Ovechkin stop being Dominique Wilkins and start being Michael Jordan?
More than the gaudy statistics, trophies, and highlight reel goals, in 2009-10 the Caps need Ovechkin to lead. To carry the team through bad stretches. To chew out teammates, like his buddy Semin whenever he takes a stupid obstruction penalty. (You've heard of the Gordie Howe Hat Trick—a goal, an assist, and a fight? Well, the Alex Semin Hat Trick is a goal, an assist, and a stick foul.)
Ovechkin must become more than the goofy, happy-go-lucky superstar. He must take the next step to becoming a winner. Southeast Division titles are no longer satisfactory.
There's one other element to the pressure Ovechkin is under this year: the Crosby Factor. Whether hockey fans like it or not, Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby have been the faces of the new NHL. The two have been linked since they entered the league and will always be intertwined with each other.
Debate will always rage as to who's better, but the only proof needed for the answer right now is this:
Stanley Cups won: Crosby 1, Ovechkin 0.
This is only my speculation, but I'm pretty sure Ovechkin despises Crosby. I think Ovie is motivated to prove he's better than Crosby in every phase of the game. But right now, Crosby can claim the ultimate team success. The pressure is now squarely on Ovechkin to lead the Capitals to similar success.
In the long run, the Great 8 will be judged not by YouTube clips or Eastern Motors commercials, but by Stanley Cups. Right now, the big hardware resides with the Caps' greatest rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Your move, Ovie.