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Why the Capitals’ Stanley Cup final berth is the death knell for Ovechkin-can’t-win narrative

His detractors have said he can’t win on the big stage, but Alex Ovechkin has proven once again that he can be a playoff performer and a trip to the Stanley Cup final should put that narrative to bed for good.

Some will say it happened the moment Evgeny Kuznetsov beat Matt Murray five-hole and sent the Capitals past the Pittsburgh Penguins and into the Eastern Conference final. Others will claim the moment didn’t come until Alex Ovechkin skated over to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, shook his hand and before gripping the Prince of Wales Trophy tight. But no matter the exact moment, it’s become clear throughout this post-season that we’re seeing the last of the narrative that claims Alex Ovechkin can’t win on the big stage.

It’s a story that has hung over Ovechkin like a dark cloud for the better part of his career, particularly the past several seasons as perennial playoff disappointment turned to whispers about where he ranks among the all-time greats if he could never get the job done in the post-season. But already a lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer no matter when his career comes to a close, Ovechkin sealed the deal and silenced his doubters for good when the buzzer sounded and the ‘Great 8’-led Capitals punched their ticket to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup final in two decades.

Mind you, the entire thing — his inability to win when it counts, that he shrunk on the big stage, that he didn’t have what it takes — has, from the outset, been overstated at best and complete and utter nonsense at worst. Consider that there are those who wax poetic about hockey being the ultimate team game, that no single player can truly decide the outcome, but a subset of that group who, despite that belief, have paradoxically decided the blame for the Capitals’ shortcomings must fall at the feet of Ovechkin. Those of that mind might suggest that Ovechkin’s lack of defensive responsibility is to blame or that he’s bereft of the leadership qualities or some other intangibles that make a player a winner. 

When it comes to hard numbers, though, the entire can’t-win-with-Ovechkin argument has held about as much weight as a wet paper bag. Even the quickest of perusals through his post-season statistics would be enough to tell you that the whole thing has been a crock.

Over the course of his career, he has 58 goals and 112 points in the post-season. So, with only one single post-season stay longer than 14 games, Ovechkin is a mere five goals shy of cracking the top 25 in career post-season goal-scoring and ahead of similar playoff performers of this era such as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Henrik Zetterberg. Ovechkin even tops noted playoff standout Daniel Briere. Likewise, without even venturing trip this deep in the post-season before, Ovechkin now ranks 71st in all-time playoff scoring and another six points would see him crack the top 60 in league’s 100-year history. He’s ahead of a similar class of heralded post-season performers, too, including Toews, Daniel Alfredsson and Martin St-Louis.

On a per-game basis, too, Ovechkin has performed with some of the league’s best since his arrival in the league. Matter of fact, among the 284 players with at least 50 post-season games under their belt in the post-lockout era, only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jason Spezza have a points-per-game average better than Ovechkin’s 0.97 mark. That’s to say Ovechkin, on a statistical basis, has been a better playoff point producer than Kane, Toews, Zetterberg, Alfredsson, Briere, Datsyuk, Daniel and Henrik Sedin and a whole host of others.

It should go without saying then that Ovechkin has consistently been the post-season leader for the Capitals during his tenure, but he’s done so almost without fail. Not including this season, Washington has made nine post-season appearances during Ovechkin’s tenure and he has been their leading playoff scorer in nine of those campaigns, including the 2008-09 playoff run in which he was the team leader by six points after two rounds. For comparison, Sidney Crosby has only led the Penguins in scoring in five of their 12 runs since his arrival. 

Even still, the argument from some corners was that Ovechkin may score, but he doesn’t do so when it counts. Of course, that, too, is patently false. In Wednesday’s Game 7, not only did Ovechkin score, but his game-opening goal stood as the game-winning tally. Take umbrage with that statistic if you will, but he will go into the record books as the Game 7 goal-scoring hero. And don’t forget that he also assisted on the overtime goal that sent the Capitals past the Penguins in the second round. Oh, and he had two goals in Washington’s Game 6 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, a win which sent the Capitals on to the second round after they clawed their way out of a 2-0 series deficit. This should come as no surprise, however. Ovechkin has long been producing in these big post-season contests.

If we consider Games 4 through 7 as the most important in a best-of-seven series, Ovechkin has shown he can step up by scoring 26 goals and 51 points in those outings. But even if you were to restrict it solely to those games in which the Capitals could either advance or go home, it would be a fool’s errand to suggest Ovechkin has shrunk in the spotlight. In the 18 series-deciding games Ovechkin has played in, win or lose, he has fired home eight goals and 17 points. In the 23 games in which the Capitals have faced post-season elimination, Ovechkin has contributed 11 goals and 21 points. He’s shown up as consistently as any player.

True as it may be, though, that points aren’t everything, it’s difficult to see where else the Ovechkin-can’t-win crowd would have liked to see the Capitals captain contribute. In the post-lockout era, he ranks third in post-season shots, second in hits, 41st in blocked shots among forwards and 31st in takeaways. As he’s not a pivot, he’s never contributed up the middle, but of players with at least 1,000 post-season minutes at 5-on-5 over the past 11 seasons, Ovechkin has the 15th-best possession rate, according to Corsica.

And even if we want to carry the narrative through to the international stage, it’s impossible to fault Ovechkin. Including the World Junior Championship, World Championship, World Cup and the Olympics, Ovechkin has scored 61 goals and 101 points in 114 games for the Russian national team. And this is to say nothing of what he has won on the international stage, as his trophy case includes three World Championships and World Junior gold. He even has a Russian Superleague title dating back to his final pre-NHL campaign. He contributed two goals and six points in 10 games for Dynamo Moscow during that run.

All of this is to say that while, yes, Ovechkin has never won a team-based trophy besides the Presidents’ Trophy, it’s never been because he isn’t a winner or because the Capitals can’t win with him. And as Washington heads to Vegas to begin the Stanley Cup final, it feels as though he’s proven that once and for all.

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