Some fans have used Washington’s latest playoff disappointment as an occasion to take shots at former general manager George McPhee: for not consistently surrounding Alex Ovechkin with elite talent, for the ill-fated Martin Erat for someone-or-other trade, for presenting his team with a string of first-time NHL coaches who failed to advance past the second round.
But if some Caps fans remain sour toward McPhee, the former GM apparently retains a soft spot for Washington. Witness his mildly anguished comments to Montreal’s TSN 690, when asked about Washington’s Game 7 loss to the Penguins last week. He certainly didn’t appear to take any joy in the continued struggles of the team that dismissed him.
“I really feel bad for the franchise and for the players,” McPhee said. “It’s turned into — as you know if you’ve been down there and to that building — such a fantastic hockey town, maybe one of the very best in the league. The support is incredible that they get. It was a tremendous gut punch [Wednesday] night, and just, boy, it’s hard to find answers. And I felt for those players [Wednesday] night, I really did. They are a really good bunch of guys, talented guys. They’re now veteran players, they’ve given everything they’ve got. …”
“Unfortunately they had a tremendous team, but [Marc-Andre] Fleury was the difference in the series,” McPhee later said. “He won games he needed to win. And unfortunately, it’s another tough season for Washington. I wish I had a better answer, but I just feel really bad for the organization.”
McPhee, of course, will always be linked to Ovechkin, a player he drafted and built his team around for the second half of his tenure in Washington. And he also offered an unprompted defense of the captain when discussing Washington’s latest second-round washout.
“I was disappointed that people were pointing fingers at Alex,” McPhee said. “Because Alex does nothing but show up every year, produce at an elite level in the playoffs and in the regular season, hits like a truck and doesn’t miss games, plays through everything. And I was disappointed that people were pointing fingers at him.”
He wasn’t the only one. Longtime Caps fan Larry King called into SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Sports Radio to counter host Adam Schein’s claim that Ovechkin had choked in Game 7.
“Ovechkin is a superior hockey player,” King said. “Knocking Ovechkin is like knocking Chris Paul for not winning an NBA championship, Ernie Banks for never winning a World Series. It’s crazy. Ovechkin is a superior player. Did he give up that one defensive lapse? Yes. But the guy who won that game [Wednesday] was Fleury. It wasn’t the Penguins. It was Fleury! The Caps should have had five goals in the second period. How is that choking? … The Caps are a better team. The Caps are a better team than the Penguins, but Fleury won that game. But that doesn’t mean they choked.”
This argument will not fly with the vast majority of Caps fans, not this time. But when asked who should be blamed, King stood by his argument.
“You blame a great goaltender,” he said. “In the second period, Ovechkin had dead-on stops. … I will tell you something, my respect for professional athletes is second to none. The word I hate is choke. How do you know what’s in the head of someone? Choking means you’re afraid.”
Ovechkin has indeed lost the unequivocal support of more than a few fans in recent years. He still has George McPhee and Larry King in his corner.