PITTSBURGH – The question was about what more Alex Ovechkin wanted to see from the team, but it was fitting the Washington Capitals captain responded by criticizing himself.
“I have to play much better,” Ovechkin said after Washington’s 3-2 Game 4 loss Wednesday night.
For the past 12 seasons, Ovechkin has been the face of the Capitals, a living reflection of their repeated postseason failures. That hasn’t always been fair, but as Washington faces a three-games-to-one deficit against the Penguins in a second-round series, the spotlight is again on Ovechkin to lead the Capitals to a first conference final in 19 years.
With expiring contracts this offseason closing the window on the most talented team to ever surround Ovechkin in Washington, this could also mark his last, best chance to alter the narrative that has defined his career.
“Our top players didn’t play as well as they need to,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said after Wednesday’s loss. “They need to be top players and step up right now.”
From the moment Ovechkin took the stage with team management and announced Washington’s first-round pick at the 2006 NHL draft, a skilled Swedish center named Nicklas Backstrom, the two players have been linked, the thunderous shooter with the subtle playmaker. They have fed off each other, raised each other up with their individual strengths, supported one another. “When we need something to happen, it’s not uncommon for Nicky to bang his stick on the boards and get Ovi’s attention and say, ‘Let’s go,’” Trotz said.
They made the playoffs for the first time together during Backstrom’s rookie year, and though they lost in a seven-game, first-round series in that 2008 postseason, with those two as cornerstones of the franchise there seemed to be hope a Stanley Cup was in Washington’s future.
But in eight postseason trips together, Ovechkin and Backstrom have never advanced past an Eastern Conference semifinal despite finishing with the league’s best regular-season record three times. Ovechkin is now 31 and Backstrom is 29, and both are weary from repeatedly running into the same second-round wall. Though Ovechkin has averaged nearly a point per game in the playoffs, he has had to answer for Washington’s string of early exits more than anyone. He and Backstrom each have four points in four games this series.
When the Capitals fell into a two-games-to-one deficit against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, Backstrom was asked about the weight of the team’s past postseason shortcomings. “Well, you are probably the only one thinking about that now,” Backstrom shot back at a reporter before abruptly ending his postgame media scrum.
“I think we’ve come to the realization that we’re not going to let the clutter that comes with this franchise bother us,” Trotz said before the playoffs. “We’re going to just plow through. What happened in the past, we can’t affect that anymore, you know? If you’re dead, you’re dead. You’re not going to pop out of the ground and be fine, you’re dead. So, all you can do is live in the moment.”
With the trade deadline approaching earlier this season, General Manager Brian MacLellan met with Ovechkin and Backstrom to gauge how they felt about the team’s postseason chances. Washington was in first place at the time, and Backstrom expressed his confidence in how the roster was constructed, especially as the team’s forward corps appeared deep and balanced with scoring throughout the lineup.
MacLellan’s three-year tenure as general manager has been a series of “all-in” moves to build around Ovechkin and Backstrom. In that first offseason, he signed defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to strengthen Washington’s blue line. The next summer, MacLellan traded for T.J. Oshie, arguably the best fit Ovechkin and Backstrom have had in a linemate, and then signed forward Justin Williams to bolster the team’s top-six forward corps. After secondary scoring was lacking last postseason, MacLellan traded for center Lars Eller and then signed winger Brett Connolly in free agency to create a third line with more offensive upside.
His last big splash was trading for puck-moving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in late February, not long after that meeting with Backstrom and Ovechkin. With 11 players on the roster entering either restricted or unrestricted free agency this summer, MacLellan has previously acknowledged that this is the last year with this group of players surrounding his two stars. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt will all be due pay raises in restricted free agency this summer, making it hard for the team to keep defenseman Karl Alzner, Oshie and Williams with the salary cap expected to stay flat.
The acquisition of Shattenkirk symbolized the sense of urgency surrounding the Capitals. The morning after the trade, Ovechkin voiced that.
“Every year we talk about, ‘This is our year, this is our year,’ ” Ovechkin said then. “Enough talking. I think it’s time to do something.”
But a roster carefully constructed to be as complete as possible has shown cracks this postseason. The league’s stingiest team during the regular-season has allowed the most goals of any team still standing in the playoffs. After the Capitals emphasized strengthening their secondary scoring in the summer, the bottom-six forwards haven’t scored in this series against the Penguins.
Connolly, who tallied a career-high 15 goals during the regular season, has been scratched for the past three games and the Capitals have played seven defensemen for the first time under Trotz. Shattenkirk has a minus-four rating in the playoffs and Orpik’s minus-seven is the worst on the team.
The strength of the supporting cast around Ovechkin and Backstrom during the regular season took some pressure off those two, and Trotz even decreased their playing time, a move focused on keeping them fresh for the playoffs. Ovechkin had one of his least productive years in goal-scoring, but Trotz was actually pleased to see the powerful sniper not running himself ragged to chase individual accomplishments.
“I think he recognized that on this team, he didn’t need to be the guy night in and night out, and that’s probably allowed him a little bit of mental rest,” Trotz said in April.
“I don’t know that we need him to be the guy, he just might be the guy for us in the end here,” MacLellan said of Ovechkin before the playoffs.
But with the secondary scoring in a drought and Washington’s promising campaign on the brink of ending prematurely once again after Wednesday’s loss in Pittsburgh, Trotz said he wanted to see more from his top players. Ovechkin felt it was time for him to do more.
“It’s the time for us,” he said.