When the Washington Capitals beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday, the team not only put itself in a Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1998 — and just the second time in franchise history — but it got the team’s star, Alex Ovechkin, off the hook. He is no longer the greatest player in N.H.L. history not to get to the league finals.
Ovechkin, 32, has never lacked for personal achievements in his 13-year career. He has led the N.H.L. in goals seven times and in points once. He is a seven-time All-Star who has won the Calder and Hart Memorial trophies along with the Ted Lindsay Award. But despite making the playoffs 10 times, his teams had been unable to break through until now.
A look around the sporting world reveals a talented group of players who, despite being top-tier Hall of Famers, not only did not win a title, but never even played for one. The group will now say goodbye to Ovechkin, while people are free to debate who should take his place among a group of standout N.H.L. performers that includes Marcel Dionne, Mike Gartner and Peter Stastny.
There was a time when the simple act of tackling Sanders seemed impossible. The diminutive running back for the Detroit Lions rushed for 15,269 yards in his 10-year career, leading the league in the category four times, including the 1997 season when he challenged the single-season rushing record with 2,053 yards. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in each season of his career and retired with many believing that he had far more good football left in him. But his teams qualified for the postseason in only five of his 10 seasons, and he won just one playoff game.
He burst onto the scene in 1989 as a 19-year-old with a big smile, a backward cap and one of the prettiest left-handed swings anyone had ever seen. He would go on to produce 630 home runs, 1,836 R.B.I. and 2,781 hits. He was named an All-Star 13 times, won the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1997 and received more than 99 percent of the vote in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility. But Griffey made it to the playoffs only three times in 22 seasons and made it out of the first round just once.
Who else? Ernie Banks is the baseball player most often cited for greatness that came without a championship, but as his Chicago Cubs never qualified for postseason play, he is not quite as analogous to Ovechkin as Griffey and others. The list of accomplished players to not play in a World Series also includes the Hall of Famers Frank Thomas, Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg, Gaylord Perry, Rod Carew, Andre Dawson and George Sisler.