WASHINGTON, D.C. – Alex Ovechkin stood in the Washington Capitals dressing room, his back pressed up against a flat-screen television, surrounded by reporters. His voice was a despondent mumble. Sweat had cascaded down his forehead to under his eye, resembling a teardrop. He was answering questions for which he didn’t really have the answers, because when you consider yourself the best team in the NHL and then fail to advance further than the second round of the playoffs, and do this annually, it’s inexplicable.
This could have been 2009, after Game 7 against the Penguins. Or 2010, when the Canadiens shocked them. Or 2011, when the Lightning swept them. Or those Game 7 losses to the Rangers in 2012 and 2013 and 2015. Or last season, losing to the Penguins in six games in overtime.
Instead, it was after Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night: a 2-0 loss at Verizon Center in which Ovechkin didn’t create a goal, contributed to a Penguins goal and apparently flummoxed his coach to the point where he wanted to defer comment on his star forward rather than assess his play in the series, when asked about it in his press conference.
“I just, yeah … emotionally right now, I don’t want to answer that question,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. “I think ‘you win or lose as a team’ is probably my best answer right now. Emotionally, I don’t think I want to answer that question right now.”
In 13 playoff games, Ovechkin had five goals and three assists, skating to a minus-4. Against the Penguins, he had two goals and three assists. He had 51 shot attempts, 21 of them finding their mark. He had 32 minutes and 12 seconds of power play time, registering two assists but no goals.
In the last two games of the series, Ovechkin didn’t have a point and was a minus-3. That included a turnover in the third period in his own defensive zone, leading to Patric Hornqvist’s back-breaking backhand goal that made it 2-0.
“It was one of those turnovers where Nate [Schmidt] got caught in between me and the puck,” said goalie Braden Holtby.
Ovechkin’s lack of offense wasn’t so much an issue in Game 6, when the Capitals were pounding the Penguins with their bodies and on the scoreboard in a 5-2 rout. It was very much an issue in Game 7, as the Penguins were more composed and effective, and the Capitals desperately needed some proof of concept that their offensive chances would eventually solve Marc-Andre Fleury.
One of Ovechkin’s nearly did: a one-timer that deflected off of Fleury’s goalie stick. An inch left, or an inch right, and it goes in. But this is the Capitals in a Game 7, so of course it didn’t.
“I didn’t see Ovi on the other side. When they made a pass, I just tried to get across as quickly as possible. I was fortunate enough to get a piece of it,” said Fleury, who, uh, stroked his stick after the save. “I talk to my stick, maybe. I say ‘thank you and say good job.’”
In moments like that, it’s hard not to think about another robbery in a Game 7 by Fleury vs. Ovechkin: a deflating breakaway stop on him in 2009 during the first period.
Ovechkin would eventually score in that Game 7. Except Pittsburgh had a 5-0 lead by the time that he did.
His Game 7 output this postseason was only part of the story for Ovechkin in the playoffs. He had a rough go of it, and was far too ordinary in most games.
Was there some lingering injury, perhaps from the hit that Nazem Kadri of the Toronto Maple Leafs put on him in Game 5 in the first round? But then everyone plays hurt in the playoffs, as they say.
Then there was the demotion to the third line in the series against the Penguins. Trotz dropped Ovechkin down to play with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson, promoting Andre Burakovsky to play with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.
Ovechkin’s ice time dipped, while Burakovsky thrived on the top line.
Trotz said it was intended to give the Capitals better balance, citing the Penguins’ use of Phil Kessel on their third line last season. But Tom Wilson isn’t Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller isn’t Nick Bonino and … well, Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup champion according to Barack Obama, so Ovechkin isn’t Phil Kessel, either.
Ovechkin had 33 goals in 82 games in the regular season, after breaking the 50-goal mark in the previous three seasons. He was praised for playing within the team concept, and it didn’t hurt the Capitals thanks to their forward depth and the goaltending of Braden Holtby. But it was an uncharacteristic regular season; maybe we find out why now that it’s finished. Maybe we find out why he wasn’t a force in the playoffs, either.
I’ve been a staunch defender of Ovechkin in the postseason. The Capitals’ previous failures weren’t his fault, and they’re still not: He had three points in the opening two games of this series, and the Capitals lost both of them on home ice.
“We didn’t lose the series tonight, we lost it in the first three games, four games,” said Nicklas Backstrom after Game 7.
He’s also played well in previous Game 7s, for the most part, with three goals and three assists in his nine games.
But this one, against the Penguins, feels different. It feels like Ovechkin contributed more to another wasted opportunity in the Alex Ovechkin Era than he had in previous postseasons.
How is it possible that in a Game 4, a game the Penguins played without Sidney Crosby, that Ovechkin would go scoreless with two shots on goal and four shot attempts?
How is it possible that, in a Game 7 – a game where the Penguins has a patchwork blue line missing Kris Letang and Trevor Daley, that had been pounded into sand by the Capitals in the two previous games – Ovechkin couldn’t tally a point while Sidney Crosby, forever the Mozart to his Salieri, helped set up the Penguins’ first goal? And that, later, an Ovechkin turnover would help set up the Penguins’ second tally?
“Without the goals, you can’t win the game, and obviously blame on us,” said Ovechkin.
The blame game will be played by everyone who watched this series. The “trade Ovechkin” chorus that was silenced after the Capitals rallied from down 3-1 will be full-throated again. Much of the hockey world will point and laugh at his futility, while the rest of us mourn the notion that one of the greatest goal scorers in NHL history may end up with a “yeah, but…” attached to his legacy because the Capitals never won a Stanley Cup.
The futility is like a nightmare for Ovechkin, one whose details change with each sleep but whose psychological horrors are constant.
How the hell can you keep the faith after 97 playoff games and not one of them played in a championship round?
“We’re trying,” Ovechkin said. “We try to do our best.”
Perhaps, one day, it’ll be good enough to get past the second round.
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