I’m going to write a few more posts about the Capitals because I’m simply amazed at the heat that Alexander Ovechkin is taking from the media as a result of the Capitals round one flameout. I’m sure that the response, were I to ask a media member, would be that when the team fails, the star takes the heat, but it seems awfully stupid to me. If the objective of the media is to explain to us what happened and why, if the star plays great and the team spits the bit, the supporting cast should take the heat. I had this exchange with Matthew Sekeres of the Globe and Mail in a chat that they did last week:
Matthew Sekeres: Good piece in the ESPN the Magazine this week by EJ Hradek. It describes how Pittsburgh (last year) and Team Canada neutralized Ovechkin.The idea is to put two big bodies on his wing (ie Rick Nash and Shea Weber, or Hal Gill if you’re Montreal) and just eat up as much space on his side of the ice as possible. Gill was terrific in that role, no doubt.
mc79hockey: Ovechkin had 8 goals and 6 assists last year against the Pens. What do you think he’d have done if the Pens hadn’t come up with an ingenious strategy to shut him down?
Matthew Sekeres: Yes, Tyler, you’re right. He got points. Team didn’t win the series, but he got points.
James Mirtle: I wouldn’t really pin the Capitals loss on Ovechkin. Where were their other scorers? Fleischman was horrible. Semin generated a lot of shots but has gone a long, long time in the postseason without a goal. Both could be gone next year.
mc79hockey: I’m not a hockey coach or an expert, but if you’re looking for reasons why Pittsburgh beat Washington last year, saying that they shut down Ovechkin, who scored at a pace not seen in a regular season since 1995-96, doesn’t seem to me like it’s the right answer.
Matthew Sekeres: Tyler, I didn’t say “shut down” but your point is taken.
Neutralize, it would appear, means something other than “shut down.” Props to Mirtle though – he seems to have the right angle to me. CBC’s Elliotte Friedman chimed in on Ovechkin today:
On their lone day off between the stunning upset of Washington and the next series with Pittsburgh, the Canadiens’ Josh Gorges and Hal Gill talked about defending Ovechkin.
“Generally, you know what’s coming,” Gorges said. “When he comes in on the off-wing, he’ll try to step to the middle and shoot through you. You can bait him into that.”
“If you do go to the middle, he will try to go to the outside,” Gill added.
Several of the Penguins described him as an “east/west” player as opposed to a “north/south” one. Fact is, for all of his terrific talent, Ovechkin has become easier to defend. He can still blow by you, but a well-prepared team knows exactly what’s coming. Clearly, the Canadiens did.
Boudreau has repeatedly told reporters who ask if Ovechkin shoots too much that “a shot off his stick is better than anything else we can do.” That’s not the case anymore. Opponents know they can lay off Ovechkin’s linemates because he isn’t so interested in using them.
“Look at what happened in the final minutes of Game 7,” another player said. “He tried to go by everybody by himself.”
“Look at their power play,” said an opposing coach. “I’m looking at Ovechkin with the puck and I’m afraid of all the talent around him. There’s [Nicklas] Backstrom. There’s [Alexander] Semin. There’s [Mike] Green. They’ve got three other guys who can kill you. And he’s taking them out of the game.”
I know what you’re thinking: This is piling on. No, it isn’t. It’s constructive criticism. It’s what Ovechkin must do to reach the next level.
I found the quotes from Gorges and Gill interesting. With them on the ice at ES – and ignoring empty netters – the Caps outscored the Habs 6-2. Way to shut him down, boys – the Caps scored 75% of the goals when you were on the ice together. For the series, the Caps outscored the Habs 10-6 at ES with Ovechkin on the ice, ignoring empty netters. If you factor in his ES TOI, the Caps scored 5.4 ESG/60 with him on the ice and allowed 3.2 ESG/60. To provide some perspective, the 5.4 ESG/60 would have led the league this year. Ovechkin scored 4.3 ESP/60 – again, this would have led the league in the regular season.
If the argument is that Ovechkin could somehow be better if he changed his game, well, I’m open to being convinced. The Canadiens didn’t come close to shutting him down during this series though. He ran all over them at ES. While you can point to the final three games and say he needs to be better in those games, I’m not quite sure what people reasonably expect that he might do. I don’t think he can be criticized without acknowledging the fact that his performance was excellent. Saying that the Capitals needed more from him at the end of the series doesn’t really do it, in my opinion – it doesn’t account for the fact that he was achieving dominant results earlier on.
The quote from the opposing coach – and you’d have to think that this is either someone on Pittsburgh or someone coaching Montreal – about Ovechkin taking guys out of the game on the PP doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense to me either. Washington was on the power play for 57.48 minutes in the Montreal series. They took 61 shots, good for a PPS/60 of 63.7 which is just ridiculously good. Ovechkin only took 7 shots – if he was taking his teammates out of the PP, I don’t understand how their PP was generating so many shots that he wasn’t taking. This is kind of an A-B=C situation here – and the comment doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. If they weren’t getting a ton of shots or if Ovechkin took a disproportionate amount, I’d understand it; this just strikes me as nonsensical. I have a hard time fathoming how this criticism can possibly be accurate, given the data.
I don’t know what the odds of this are but if Ted Leonsis were to sell the franchise to someone less contemptible, the Capitals would be a very easy team to cheer for next year. As it stands, he’ll own the team and we’ll probably have to suffer through a deluge of stories about how you have to lose before you can win and how Ovechkin raised his game. It’d be nice if just once, there was someone kicking out an alternate hypothesis, like maybe teams have to lose before they can win because teams on the upswing tend to be better the following year and, in any event, the odds are against any team winning the Stanley Cup in a given season.