If Paul Pierce sat back and analyzed the Capitals, where would he find ‘It?’
Would it be in Alex Ovechkin, pointless in four straight playoff games entering Wednesday’s Game 7? Or in Nicklas Backstrom, pointless in five straight playoff games? Or in Mike Green, who has yet to record a point in this series against the Rangers? As a group, that trio has been kept off the scoresheet in four straight playoff games for the first time in a single season.
Now, maybe Pierce — who famously called out the Raptors for lacking “It” before the Wizards’ first-round sweep of Toronto — would cast a skeptical eye at these stats. Maybe he would recognize that these are tiny sample sizes, and that these are men who excel on the power play but have gotten few chances with the extra man. Maybe he would conclude that “clutch” is something you find inside your great uncle’s Volvo, not inside your hockey players.
Or maybe Pierce would instead scan a history of that Caps trio in Game 7s. Ovechkin has no goals in his past five Game 7s. Backstrom has no points in his past six Game 7s. Green has never scored in eight Game 7s.
You and I are smart, discerning, reasonable people. But we at least recognize that we will hear these statistics on repeat — like the Kars for Kids jingle, but worse — if the Caps go down Wednesday without any contributions from their stars.
And even though you and I are smart, discerning, reasonable people, we all thought, “Holy cow, how clutch is Joel Ward!!!!” when he put the Caps ahead in Game 7 against the Islanders. Ward has two goals in Washington’s past four Game 7s. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johansson, combined, have none.
Sure, that’s just some weird fluke, finding yourself in the right place at the right time, a million small events twice putting Ward in front of the net with the puck on his stick.
“It isn’t like I went coast-to-coast,” Ward said. “Just sometimes you get a good bounce.”
Now Ward is an ardent sports fans who knows exactly what Pierce has said and done. He said a conversation about producing under pressure would be relevant in baseball or football or basketball, sports that are sometimes defined by one-on-one matchups. But he argued at length Tuesday morning that a clutch gene doesn’t exist in hockey.
The Caps, he said, can’t call an isolation play for Ovechkin, running a picket fence play or ordering everyone else to the boards while their star barrels in on goal alone. There is nothing wrong with how Ovechkin has approached deciding games: “The mind-set is definitely there to do it,” Ward said. Move this storyline along to somewhere else.
“People talk and debate about it. I get it. I’m just trying to tell you: Hockey’s not that game,” Ward said. “People don’t understand, the sport of hockey is a different beast compared to other sports. You can’t just throw that deep ball in the corner, and it’s up to you to just go and grab it. Things happen. You make a pass, it banks off the boards differently, it goes off a guy’s skate, bounces over there. There’s a lot of variables that go into it. … Hockey is the ultimate beast, man. It’s a crazy sport.”
We all understand that. We all agree with Ward’s premise, at least intellectually.
“So if you all agree, then what?” Ward asked. “If you all agree, if you understand, then what’s the problem?”
The problem is that a few feet away, Green was being asked how Ward can be so productive in the playoffs — the rare player who scores more frequently in the playoffs (.27 goals per game) than in the regular season (.19 goals per game).
“He’s just a clutch guy,” Green said.
Ward threw up his hands at such suggestions. He said he had no secrets, other than staying positive, being confident, visualizing success and enjoying the spotlight. He said both his Game 7 goals were the result of positive happenstance, and just taking a hard whack at the puck. It’s different, he said, from what Pierce or LeBron James have done.
“Those elite athletes and superstars … they love it, they embrace that moment,” Ward said. “I’ve tried to do that. Those guys are super-talented. … For me, I just take my inner Paul Pierce, whatever you want to call it. I just want to be a difference-maker, like those guys do. I just try to do it my own way.”
Barry Trotz is fond of saying that to win in the playoffs, “your best players have got to be your best players.” And Ovechkin and Backstrom talked Tuesday morning about the need for their top line to produce.
“I don’t think me, Backy, Greeny, [Brouwer] played the last two games the way we can play,” Ovechkin said.
“Obviously we’d like to score and produce out there,” Backstrom said. “I think we had some good looks last game that we should have put in. But we’ve just got to keep working hard and play the right way and hopefully it will help us.”
Ovechkin scored goals in the first two games of this series, insane bits of skill that were created in some CGI lab. He did most of the work that led to Ward’s Game 1 winner. He has put 33 shots on goal in his eight Game 7s. And he has said exactly what you would want him to say over the past 48 hours: that his teammates are confident and believe in each other. He doesn’t need advice from anyone on how to approach Wednesday night.
Still, Ward — who was speaking about only himself — had some thoughts about how to handle a Game 7. Pierce likely would approve.
“Obviously I don’t have the skill-set as much, but I just try to use my hockey brain, just try to be that guy,” Ward said. “And when you get the chance, just make it count.”