We’re going to need a new post-season definition for Alex Ovechkin. All the old ones no longer fit.
After finally slaying Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday and advancing to the third round of the playoffs for the first time in his career, you cannot call Ovechkin a choker, or a whipping boy or the perennial face of failure. He’s not a punch line. He might lack teeth, but he certainly doesn’t lack heart.
For once, he’s not the scapegoat. He never should have been.
And yet, that’s the title that Ovechkin has worn for most of his tenure in Washington. As the greatest goal-scorer of our generation, the seven-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner led the Capitals to eight division titles and to the Presidents’ Trophy three times during a 13-year span. But as the narrative went, once the regular season ended and the stakes were raised, Ovechkin was unable to push a Stanley Cup contender over the hump.
Each and every year, he apparently disappeared. Or was that someone else?
While Ovechkin has definitely shown up during these playoffs, having scored eight goals and 15 points in 12 games — including three goals and seven points against the Penguins — it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has paid attention to the Capitals over the years. He’s always shown up. He’s always produced. And he’s done so at a level that would suggest he’s more clutch than he gets credit for.
In 109 playoff games, Ovechkin has 54 goals and 105 points. Only Sidney Crosby (66) and Evgeni Malkin (62) have scored more playoff goals since 2005-06. But they have also played nearly 50 more games than him.
There’s a reason for that. And it has nothing to do with the Sid versus Ovie debate.
Hockey is a team sport, but individual legacies are defined by team success. It’s partially why there were three current Chicago Blackhawks on the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players list, while Joe Thornton and Dale Hawerchuk were both noticeably absent.
It’s also why Crosby has held a distinct advantage over Ovechkin where their Hall of Fame legacies are concerned.
It doesn’t matter how many scoring titles or MVP awards you win in April. All that matters is the big silver trophy awarded in June. And in that department, Crosby’s Penguins have dominated, winning three Stanley Cups and owning a 3-0 record against the Capitals prior to this year’s playoffs.
At the same time, that head-to-head dominance rarely had anything to do with the teams’ two biggest stars.
In 2009, Ovechkin had eight goals and 14 points in a second-round series against Pittsburgh; Crosby had eight goals and 13 points. In 2016, Ovechkin had seven points to Crosby’s two. A year later, Ovechkin had five points and Crosby had seven. This year, Ovechkin and Crosby each had three goals, with Crosby edging him with eight points to seven.
In four playoff series against each other, Ovechkin has a combined 15 goals and 33 points, while Crosby has 13 goals and 30 points.
Where there has been separation is with their supporting casts. For years, Ovechkin had Nicklas Backstrom and not much else. Crosby, meanwhile, had Malkin, and Phil Kessel and Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray, as well as lesser lights such as Jake Guentzel and Connor Sheary who showed up and contributed when it mattered the most.
Who has helped Ovechkin do the heavy lifting? Alex Semin, who had no goals in a first-round exit to Montreal in 2010 and then had three goals and one assist in 14 games in 2012? Kevin Shattenkirk, who last year managed one goal in 13 games? How about T.J. Oshie, who scored one goal against Pittsburgh in last year’s playoffs?
This year, the tables turned.
Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov, who scored the series-clinching goal on a breakaway in overtime, has seven goals and 14 points in 12 games. Two years ago, he had just a goal and one assist in 10 games. Goaltender Braden Holtby had a .921 save percentage against the Penguins, which was a significant improvement from the .887 save percentage he had against them a year ago.
With the exception of Crosby and Guentzel, who are tied for the playoff scoring lead, Pittsburgh’s top guns went silent against the Capitals. Kessel had no goals in six games, while Malkin, who missed Games 1 and 2 with an injury, managed a goal and two assists after a season in which he finished fourth in scoring. Murray, meanwhile, had one of his worst playoff rounds of his young career.
So while a lot of the blame over the years unfairly landed on No. 8’s shoulders, he is now probably receiving far more praise than he actually deserves. That’s fine. If the Capitals bow out to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference final, Ovechkin will wear the horns again.
But if Washington manages to go all the way, maybe the NHL’s most misunderstood player will get a chance to re-write his legacy. Of course, for that to happen he’ll continue to need plenty of help.
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