By Tracee Hamilton
Thursday, April 29, 2010; D01
Arguably the best hockey player in the world. That phrase is often used to describe Alex Ovechkin. I've used it myself.
But is it true? Can Ovechkin be the greatest player in the world but fail to drag his team out of the first round of the playoffs, against the worst of 16 teams to make the postseason, with the deciding Game 7 on home ice? Can you be the best hockey player in the world if your team underachieves to such a degree? Because Wednesday night's 2-1 loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals felt like one of the biggest failures in D.C. sports history.
Yes, another year, another Caps season that didn't live to see Memorial Day, Cinco de Mayo or even May Day. Unleash the "choking dogs" jokes; unholster your golf quips. A No. 1 seed had never blown a three-games-to-one lead to a No. 8 seed since the current playoff format was adopted in 1994 -- until Wednesday night.
Was this series a referendum on Ovechkin and his place in the hockey galaxy? The answer is probably yes. When you are so clearly the face of the franchise, and the franchise so clearly fails, what does that say about you?
It hasn't been a great year for the Russian superstar, measuring it with his own gaudy yardstick. He didn't win the scoring title. He had a controversial suspension. At the Olympics in Vancouver, he was a non-factor for the Russian team, which in turn was itself a non-factor.
And then came the playoffs. He led the team with postseason points (10) and assists (5) and tied for the lead in goals (5). But in three of the Caps' four losses of this series, he didn't have a goal -- although that statistic will be argued until the cows come home, or training camp opens, whichever comes first, because an apparent goal at the start of the third period Wednesday night, perhaps his prettiest of the postseason, was waved off because of interference.
But none of that changes the fact that the Caps lost to the Habs. Is that solely Ovechkin's fault? Of course not. But you can't help but notice that his nemesis -- by his own reckoning, not mine -- and the other guy who's often referred to as "arguably the best hockey player in the world," Sidney Crosby, has in the past year won the Stanley Cup, the Olympic gold medal (scoring the game winner in overtime, to boot) and tied for the league lead in goals.
That reads a lot like Ovechkin's to-do list coming into the season. Instead, his season ends with the Presidents' Trophy and little else. I've never seen a player hug the Presidents' Trophy in the back of a limo or bathe a baby in the Presidents' Trophy or take a swig of champagne out of the Presidents' Trophy.
Ovechkin played with fire against the Habs. He got no help from teammate Alexander Semin, who led the team in shots on goal but managed to find the net with nary a one. Mike Green was AWOL for much of the series, and his penalty at the end of the first period Wednesday led to the power-play goal by Marc-Andre Bergeron that all but ended the Caps' season.
I ran into former Detroit Red Wings coach Jacques Demers at Verizon Center on Wednesday night, and he reminded me of something I'd forgotten from my days in Detroit. During the Wings' close-but-no-cigar days, there was talk in Detroit that Steve Yzerman should be traded. The heresy went like this: The Wings would never win a Cup with Yzerman, who was (inarguably, in my opinion) the greatest team captain in sports history.
The Wings didn't listen. Demers made him the youngest captain (21) in team history and the front office surrounded him with talent. Yzerman went on to lead Detroit to three Stanley Cups on the ice -- after Demers was gone, of course -- and a fourth from the front office.
Can Ovechkin have similar success one day? Yzerman was drafted in 1983 and won his first Cup in 1997 -- not a time frame destined to cheer Washington fans, especially this morning. The Wings faced some of the same criticism the Caps are now hearing, specifically, that the team was built for the regular season, not the playoffs. Eventually, that changed.
Ovechkin is a polarizing player in ways Yzerman wasn't. He is brash and bold and would rather spend his $9 million on Dolce and Gabbana than, say, haircuts.
But Yzerman had one advantage over Ovechkin: From the start, he was the ultimate team player. Heck, his nickname was the Captain, a moniker usually reserved for yacht club blowhards and Tennille's musical partner.
Ovechkin, at 24, still has time to grow into the role. I've taken shots at Albert Haynesworth for failing to attend voluntary workouts at Redskins Park during the offseason, but the truth is, Ovechkin often skips the optional workouts as well.
In many ways the two situations are far from comparable. The Redskins' voluntary workouts are during the offseason; the Caps' come amid an 82-game season with grueling travel. The Redskins' season lasts six months, seven at the most. Hockey is eight months, miminum (and I hear it can last nearly 10 months in some places). Haynesworth is in no way regarded as a team leader; Ovechkin is wearing the "C" on his sweater. Ovechkin plays as hard as anyone on the ice; I've seen more knees since Haynesworth arrived in Washington than Flo Ziegfeld.
But the day before Game 7, Ovechkin skipped the optional skate. Nearly everyone else showed up. Semin was also a no-show. One might have thought he could use the practice. One might have thought his captain would tell him so. But it's hard to lead by example when you're not in the building. It's a small thing, but it's not, not in team sports.
Ovechkin is one of the most exciting players in the game today. That is inarguable. He is the future of this franchise, no question. He makes this team go, without a doubt. The question is, go where? For now, the answer is: home.