There’s no positive connotation associated with the word “quit”, but that’s how Coach Adam Oates chose to describe Alex Ovechkin’s defensive participation on the play that led to the Dallas Stars’ fourth goal Tuesday night.
It was a blunt, honest assessment. While Oates said Thursday he hasn’t yet spoken with the star winger about the play, when they do he plans to reinforce the need for Ovechkin to stay involved in the play regardless of what zone it occurs in.
“The message is the same message I tell him all the time,” Oates said. “It’s a shame because he actually pushed hard up the ice and I’m sure when he turned around he saw that we had three guys back and figured they were going to get the job done and they didn’t.”
The Capitals did have numbers back when Dallas forwards Dustin Jeffrey and Alex Chiasson rushed up ice, but it was Ovechkin’s responsibility to watch the third member of that line – Ray Whitney. He missed the 41-year-old veteran winger, though, until Whitney cut past him at the top of the offensive zone, receiving a pass in the slot before setting up Jeffrey for the goal.
Oates said he believes both Ovechkin and Whitney were caught off guard by the other Stars forwards being able to maintain possession. Ovechkin was not made available to reporters Thursday, so the 28-year-old’s viewpoint on the play is unclear.
“You watch Ray Whitney, he looks surprised too. If you watch his reaction ‘oh wow’ and he jumps into it and Ovi got caught flat footed,” Oates said. “It happens to everybody at times, every player has their momentary lapses and it’s just a reminder to him that you can’t. You’re in the spotlight, you can’t.”
Throughout his nine-year career, Ovechkin has never been accused of being a solid two-way player. He’s a pre-eminent goal scorer, arguably the best of his generation, but his lackluster defensive play has always been used to detract from his overall stature when compared to other top players such as Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Pavel Datsyuk and so on.
This year is no exception because while Ovechkin leads the league in goals (48), he may become the first player at the top of that category to also finish last in the league in plus-minus. His minus-36 is currently worst among the 861 NHLers who have played a game this season.
“Every single stat is good and bad because there’s truth to it and there’s also not truth to it, every stat,” Oates said Tuesday prior to the Stars game. “Our whole team is minus, our whole team, so it reflects on his play defensively and all of ours. I think the number’s skewed, but no question [it reflects on the team or individual’s play].”
While the statistic doesn’t take into account numerous factors that go into a goal being scored, simply who was on the ice for an even strength or shorthanded goal against, it speaks to some of Ovechkin’s problems five on five.
As the Capitals have foundered in recent weeks while trying to reach the postseason, Ovechkin has been all but unnoticeable at even strength. He is riding a career-worst 16 game streak without an even strength goal and he didn’t record a single even strength during that span, either.
Prior to the Olympic break Ovechkin had recorded 25 even strength tallies and 16 on the power play. In the 17 games since, the numbers have skewed toward special teams with six of Ovechkin’s seven goals coming on the man-advantage.
When discussing Ovechkin’s struggles before the Dallas game, Oates said he tries to keep the lack of even strength production in context like that the winger spends the entire game matched up against an opponent’s best defenseman or top forwards.
“That’s his life, he knows that and he takes that responsibility every night,” Oates said Tuesday. “Every once in a while you forget to give him credit for because you see the minus column and I catch myself at times. I’m trying to get him to play better and better five-on-five hockey no question but I’m also trying to do the same thing with all of us.”