WASHINGTON --- It's an hour after his team's final regular-season game ends in victory, clinching his first NHL playoff berth, and Alex Ovechkin grabs one of the red T-shirts commemorating the Washington Capitals' surprising Southeast Division title.
He pulls it over his shaggy mop of black hair. Over the scruffy beard teammates say makes him look like one of those Geico cavemen. Over his oft-broken nose. Over his dress shirt and striped tie. He puts on a suit jacket, pleased by his look, then sets about cajoling other players to don the Ts, too.
A giddy Ovechkin sees Capitals owner Ted Leonsis in the locker room. They throw their arms around each other in a sweet embrace.
"Nobody believed," the $124 million employee whispers to the boss. "Nobody."
It has been quite a transformation. The Capitals went from 6-14-1 and 30th in the 30-team NHL on Thanksgiving Day to the No. 3-seeded club in the Eastern Conference playoffs, facing Philadelphia in a series that begins Thursday at Washington. Thanks to a season-closing seven-game winning streak -- and victories in 11 of their past 12 games -- not only will the Capitals return to the postseason for the first time since 2003, but Ovechkin will make his NHL playoff debut.
"If he's not MVP of the league now," Leonsis says in the postgame euphoria Saturday night, "I don't know who deserves to be."
Corralled right before he makes it out the door, Ovechkin smiles through every answer of a brief interview. Some phrases are clipped, others are cliches -- the sorts of rehearsed sentences often heard from professional athletes. It's as though he were speaking in his native tongue.
"I don't feel pressure," the face of the franchise proclaims.
"I just do my job," the league's leading scorer professes.
"We don't give up," the assistant captain insists.
It's only when asked to compare his recent play with that of his first two NHL seasons that the 22-year-old Russian they've come to call "Alex the Great" exhales, then pauses for a moment, perhaps thinking about what's transpired and what's to come.
"It was my greatest year," he says finally, flashing his gap-toothed grin, "and it's not done yet."
Still, consider these bona fides of Ovechkin, a player Flyers goalie Martin Biron says "shoots 100 miles an hour, 100 percent of the time":
l 65 goals, a club record, the most ever by an NHL left wing, the most by any player at any position since 1996 -- and 13 more than anyone else scored in 2007-08;
l 112 points, also a league best this season;
l 22 power-play goals, 11 game-winning goals, 446 shots, all league highs;
l 163 career goals, a higher three-season total than everyone in NHL history except Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy.
That list of seemingly meaningful statistics could go on and on and on. Yet, as Ovechkin succinctly puts it: "Without the playoffs, the numbers mean nothing."