Here we go again. The Caps, who put together yet another remarkable regular season, are again on the brink of elimination far sooner than than they should be. There are very few things more certain in life than Washington disappointing in the playoffs.
This year was supposed to be different though. This was the one. It finally felt like it was time for this team to come together and bring a championship to a town starving for one. Except it’s not. Like every year before it, this won’t be the one. I mean, Washington isn’t technically out yet, but c’mon, it’s 3-1 against the team they’re petrified of, the team that always burns them – they’re basically cooked. The Penguins don't have their best D-man and they didn’t have Sidney Crosby for two games (and maybe more), and it just doesn’t seem to matter: Washington cannot win.
Naturally, blame will fall on the Capitals' leader. That’s how it always goes for any team that’s supposed to win. Crosby was vilified for years because he only had one Cup when we all thought Pittsburgh would be the next dynasty, and every year he didn’t win there were questions about his game or his leadership or whether Jonathan Toews was the actual best player in the world because he had more Cups (I still can’t believe this happened). Hockey is the ultimate team game, but it’s amazing how quickly the blame falls on the shoulders of the top guy every single time something doesn’t go as expected.
Alex Ovechkin has been in the league for 12 years and Washington has made the playoffs in nine of them. Every year there’s the same questions about why he can’t win. Not even that, the Caps can’t even make it past the second round. It’s not for a lack of try either – they’ve been utterly dominant against the Penguins and just can’t figure out Marc-Andre Fleury. That’s been the case for a few other Caps series in the past too (Jaroslav Halak, hello). We’ve reached the point in the Caps disappointing playoff saga where their gaudy shot totals and dominant play just doesn’t matter, because the same thing seems to happen every year: they lose where it counts.
When they do lose, Ovechkin takes the brunt of it. He shouldn’t though. The Caps struggles aren’t entirely his fault, especially considering he’s usually the best Capital on the ice every post-season, just as he is in the regular season. That’s at least by Game Score where, aside from two seasons, he’s been nearly as dominant in the playoffs as you’d expect given his regular season play.
The only two real trouble spots for Ovechkin were in 2012 and 2013, the former of which was his worst season ever. If you’ll recall, that was the season when Dale Hunter was coach and we were treated to the Ovechkin shot-blocking experience. That they got to Game 7 of the second round is pretty amazing considering how bad Ovechkin was in his new role. Overall, it was a pretty good lesson on how not to treat your superstar by turning him into something he’s not.
Aside from those two seasons, Ovechkin has been as good as expected. What’s more, he’s been as good or better than his regular season self every year that Washington has been an actual contender. There should be very few questions about Ovechkin’s playoff resume because this team is not losing because of him – he’s bringing the same heat he brings during the regular season.
What’s changed is how hot that heat gets, and that’s simply what happens when a player has been in the league this long. Ovechkin is 31 now, the fact he’s still playing at a consistently high level is remarkable, but he’s not the player he was from 2007 to 2010. This season was his worst year yet (excluding the Hunter year) and he’s still a high end talent, but it doesn’t feel like expectations for him have aligned with the player he is now. No one should expect Peak Ovechkin to suddenly burst through the door to start taking over games. He’s still a damn good player, but his decline from absurd to simply elite is very noticeable.
That brings us to this year where Ovechkin has been just as good as he was during the regular season, but that hasn’t been good enough when the rest of the team is faltering. Outside of Tom Wilson the bottom six is not scoring (the quest for balanced scoring is likely why Ovechkin has been moved down to the third line for Game 5), while Braden Holtby has been truly awful this series. Both those things have hurt the team way more than Ovechkin playing consistent to his regular season pace.
But Ovechkin is shouldering the blame anyways (that’s what good leaders do right?) after one particularly poor performance in Game 4, when he was almost invisible. He said he personally needs to play much better, and he’s not wrong. Given the importance of the game, it was one of the worst playoff games of Ovechkin’s career.
Importance here is measured by change in series win probability with a win or loss multiplied by Cup probability given the number of teams left.
Looking at the rest of this chart though, I doubt you can chalk up a poor Game 4 performance to pressure, and that’s another reason it’s hard to call Ovechkin a playoff choker. While the right side is basically empty because it’s a space reserved for games in the next two rounds, what’s clear here is that there’s little discernible pattern between how big the game is and how Ovechkin plays. He plays the same as always, no matter the stage. There’s a few below average games here and there, like any player, but the large majority of his playoff performances have been great.
This year he’s still been good, though there’s been few truly dominant performances. That’s not because he can’t elevate his game in the playoffs, it’s simply because he’s not the same player he was during his peak. Expectations aren’t aligning with reality, and that’s not his fault. Just because he’s not singlehandedly taking over games like he used to doesn’t mean he hasn’t been playing good hockey.
Ovechkin was a beast during those years, he just couldn’t do it all himself. He shouldn’t have been expected to then and he definitely shouldn’t be expected to now either. Win or (very likely) lose, Washington is more than its superstar winger. Hockey is the ultimate team game and credit or blame for wins and losses shouldn’t fall on any one player, especially when that player has done everything in his power to help his team win. That’s what Ovechkin has done. That’s what Ovechkin will always do. Maybe one day it’ll mean a trip past the second round.
Thanks to Matt Pfeffer for the game importance data.
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