Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals skates off the ice following the Capitals 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on May 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
For those who would prefer to spend today ripping on Alex Ovechkin as the root of all the Washington Capitals’ playoff ills, the evidence is very clear and even more damning. On not one, but both of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ goals in their 2-0 win over the Capitals in Game 7, Ovechkin is about as soft on the puck and his man in the defensive zone as any forward can possibly be. He’s indefensibly soft and laissez-faire, doing nothing but taking a half-hearted, one-handed swing at the puck on the first goal and not doing near enough to battle to get the puck out of the zone on the giveaway by (who else?) Kevin Shattenkirk on the second.
Ovechkin and the Capitals will wear this one for a long, long time. At no time in their tenure was their path to the Stanley Cup more in their favor. They had a young, inexperienced opponent who was just happy to be there in the first round. And in the second round, they had a great chance to finally overcome their nemesis, which was playing without its No. 1 defenseman and No. 1 goalie. (And for one game, their best player, thanks to a well-placed crosscheck by Matt Niskanen to Sidney Crosby’s face on a “hockey play.”)
When Ovechkin told reporters after the game, “We’re trying,” he wasn’t just blowing smoke. Has any franchise in the history of sports done more to chase a championship without success? Coach Bruce Boudreau was seen as the problem in the playoffs, so the Capitals tried Dale Hunter, then Adam Oates and, finally Barry Trotz. They went out and got playoff-proven veterans like Troy Brouwer and Justin Williams. They balanced out their embarrassment of riches in talent by supplementing their depth, and in the process, became the Eastern Conference version of the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. They changed general managers. They signed former Penguins. They made bold trades, some of which were disasters. Yup, we’re talking about Martin Erat for Filip Forsberg here.
Through all of it, one thing remained the same, until it wasn’t. Until this season, Ovechkin was the focal point for both the Capitals wild success and their confounding struggles, depending on how well he was playing and what time of year it was. But by the end of these playoffs, Ovechkin was a third-liner, getting less ice time than Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Andre Burakovsky, Marcus Johansson and Williams. And the funny thing is, that’s how it should be. Those players should have been out on the ice more than Ovechkin in a game that the Capitals needed to win.
To blame Ovechkin alone this season would be misguided at best. And that’s because, as great as Ovechkin’s career has been, he’s no longer the player who has the capacity to be that kind of difference maker. There’s little doubt that Trotz came to that realization and that’s why seven of the 11 forwards the Capitals dressed for Game 7 received more ice time than Ovechkin did. And there’s likely little doubt Ovechkin has come to that conclusion himself, given how willingly he accepted his role on the third line. Watching the way Ovechkin defended on the two Penguin goals, the criticism of Trotz probably shouldn’t be that he didn’t play Ovechkin enough, instead that he played him too much.
While Sidney Crosby continues to round out his game, continues to surprise with his versatility – channeling his inner Steve Yzerman to become a defensive demon in last year’s playoffs, and then following that up by leading the NHL in goals in 2016-17 – Ovechkin has essentially regressed into being a one-trick pony. He sets up on the left dot on the power play and when the puck gets to him just the right way, at the right speed, it’s more often than not in the back of the net. Opponents know he’s going to do it and are still often unable to do anything to stop it. It’s truly a sight to behold.
But as Ovechkin showed this season and in the playoffs, he no longer drives possession. He plays a physical game much less and as evidenced by his play on both Pittsburgh goals in Game 7, his defensive play actually seems to be getting worse. But all in all, did Ovechkin deliver basically what would have been expected of him in this playoff? I would say the answer to that is yes. He willingly became a team player and accepted a role when it became clear that he was no longer the one driving this team. So to pin this defeat solely on Ovechkin doesn’t make sense.
Because the fact is Ovechkin has ceased to become a significant factor for the Capitals. He hasn’t been one for a while now. And perhaps, for that strange reason, he’s become a bigger factor than ever. Oshie said after Game 7 that you wonder how much disappointment you have to put yourself through to get the job done. He may not find out, at least not with this team. He’s an unrestricted free agent, as is Williams, Daniel Winnik, Karl Alzner and Shattenkirk. The priority will be to ink Kuznetsov to a long-term deal because he’s a huge part of the future of this team. So are Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt, who like Kuznetsov are all restricted free agents with arbitration rights.
The Capitals have a lot of decisions to make, some of them downright vexing. Heck, even the possibility of exploring trading Ovechkin and retaining some salary might be on the table. The Capitals are a very good team that may or may not figure this out some day. To blow everything up would be a huge risk. The Capitals will probably stay the course and hope that some year they’re healthy enough and hardened enough to crack the playoff code. But one thing is abundantly clear. They cannot, and probably will not, do it with Ovechkin as a prominent piece, whether he continues playing in Washington or not.