There must be some dissection here, and if we’re picking apart the latest Washington Capitals’ disaster, it might as well be a complete slice-open-the-body autopsy to take a look at the heart. After Wednesday night’s shutout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the seventh game of their second-round playoff series, we have another data point. The same result, more or less: nine early exits from the playoffs over the past 10 seasons.
Any scientist studying this series of events would dismiss the randomness of hockey and look for commonality. Since this latest era in Washington hockey began bracing for springtime disappointments in 2008, there have been two general managers, four coaches and six playoff goalies. Through it all, there has been a singular focal point: Alexander Mikhailovich Ovechkin.
Ovechkin, at this juncture, is the oddest of sports entities, hero and goat even among his own fan base. He can fairly be viewed, simultaneously, as the reason the Capitals rose to prominence over the past decade and the reason that they have failed so monumentally at the most meaningful moments.
The day after his latest playoff ouster, we discover — through the Russian Hockey Federation — that Ovechkin was hurt against the Penguins, that he required painkilling injections, that he won’t make his usual minutes-after-playoff-elimination flight to join his national team for the world championships. Maybe that explains Ovechkin’s demotion to the third line. Maybe that explains why both Penguins goals Wednesday night came when he was on the ice. Maybe that explains why he made what appeared to be a halfhearted and ultimately unsuccessful effort to clear the puck from the Washington zone in the third period, a puck that ended up behind goalie Braden Holtby for an insurmountable 2-0 lead.
But don’t get too caught up in this specific game, this specific failure. We have a wide-angle view of Ovechkin, his Capitals and the playoffs. We don’t need a larger sample size. We know.
The Capitals have been built around Ovechkin since the day he was drafted 13 years ago. The three Hart Trophies as the NHL’s MVP and the three Presidents’ Trophies as the NHL’s best regular season team are nice and all. But really, all they have to show for it are two rebuilding seasons while Ovechkin was establishing himself; three first-round exits — one after a Presidents’ Trophy-winning season; a miss of the playoffs altogether in the midst of his prime; and six losses in the second round.
There are complicated reasons for all of those results. But there is one constant. Well, two, of course, when you count center Nicklas Backstrom, the only other player who has been here through the entire run. Backstrom, however, didn’t announce his presence in this town or in the league by throwing himself into the boards after a goal, didn’t wear shades and a cowboy hat at the NHL skills competition, doesn’t have seven 50-goal seasons and the attention that comes with them. He just goes about his work.
One other thing Backstrom doesn’t have: the “C” on his sweater.
Captain is a role that is, for some reason, more revered in hockey than in other team sports. Ovechkin assumed the role in January 2010, a week after the team’s former captain — forward Chris Clark — was traded to Columbus in the deal that landed Washington speedy forward Jason Chimera.
At that point, the Capitals were defined by their youth and exuberance. Ovechkin, Backstrom, defenseman Mike Green and sniper Alexander Semin were all 25 or younger, with core forward Brooks Laich just 26. There wasn’t a prominent veteran who figured to stick around as this group matured together, so Bruce Boudreau and George McPhee — then the coach and general manager, respectively — decided to bestow the “C” upon the 23-year-old Ovechkin.
“This doesn’t happen too often, but the group got up and cheered,” Boudreau said then, speaking of his meeting with the team to tell them of the decision. “I had talked to a lot of them in the last couple of days, and they said Alex was the only choice. ‘He’s our leader and he’s our guy.’”
And yet, while Ovechkin has unquestionably been the Capitals’ guy since then, he hasn’t unquestionably been the leader.
Not to bring up an old quote, and not to draw a direct comparison to Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby — by now, well established not just as Ovechkin’s chief nemesis, but as his outright conqueror — but it’s hard to escape what Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik, a former Crosby teammate with the Penguins, said before this year’s series when asked to point out something about Crosby that might not be clearly visible from the outside.
“Everyone talks about how talented he is and how he’s the best player in the world, but I can say he’s hands-down the hardest-working guy I’ve ever seen in practice,” Orpik said. “He’s got a lot on his plate every day, and he comes in, he doesn’t take any days off when it comes to practices. I’ve played with a lot of guys that are very talented that coast through practice. That’s what makes him as good as he is. He’s that competitive every single day.”
Now, it’s completely unfair to both Orpik and Ovechkin to say that, by highlighting Crosby’s work ethic, Orpik was referencing Ovechkin as a superstar who coasts through practice. But it’s also ignorant to not notice the discrepancies here. It’s also instructive that on the very day Orpik said that about Crosby, Ovechkin left practice, the first in preparation for the Penguins’ series, because of a broken skate. Minor issue. No big deal. But he never returned to the ice.
“I said, ‘You didn’t have another pair?’” Coach Barry Trotz said then, making light of the incident. “He goes, ‘I couldn’t find them.’”
Ha ha ha. Jokes all around.
The Capitals did not lose to the Penguins because Ovechkin didn’t finish practice in the days leading up to the series. But you can’t willfully argue that little incidents such as that don’t have some sort of cumulative effect. The captain, in hockey, is supposed to set the example. What sort of example is that?
“He should never have been named the captain,” said one person with first-hand knowledge of the situation. “You’re asking him to do something he’s not capable of.”
There’s a further trickle-down here that affects the entire locker room, the entire organization. Both McPhee and Brian MacLellan, the team’s current GM, have worked hard to provide Ovechkin’s Capitals with annual upgrades — midseason and offseason — to push deeper into the playoffs. When such a piece arrives to a club with an established winning culture and a well-respected leadership hierarchy, the veterans in place, including the captain, will say: “This is how we do things here. Follow our example, and you’ll fit in seamlessly.”
With Ovechkin’s Capitals, too often the players being imported have been expected to provide the leadership. Go back through the years: Sergei Fedorov or Mike Knuble or Jason Arnott or Scott Walker or, most recently, Justin Williams. It’s difficult, and maybe impossible, for one outsider to infiltrate a locker room and get 20 other players on board with his way in half a season or, in Williams’s case, even two full seasons. For better or worse, that way is ingrained already.
In Washington, there’s no getting around that the way is Ovechkin’s. He is the room’s largest personality, the employee with the longest tenure. If he drifts through a crucial playoff game — as he did in Game 4 against Pittsburgh, whether because of injury or disinterest — it’s hard for the players who will come and go to get the one who knows he’ll be here to change his work habits, his DNA.
We aren’t done, though, with the interesting elements of Ovechkin’s career. The 2016-17 Capitals are the last version that will be built around Ovechkin’s talents in Ovechkin’s prime. Evgeny Kuznetsov is now Washington’s most gifted offensive player. Ovechkin’s slide to the third line for the final three games against Pittsburgh might be a precursor of the role he’ll play in seasons to come. Maybe not immediately. But it’s coming.
Ovechkin can’t really be traded. Even if the Capitals found a taker acceptable to him, he’s about to be 32, and he’s due $10 million a season for the next four years. So that’s the next step in this evolution: How does Alex Ovechkin, born to be a lead dog, accept being part of a team built around others rather than the superstar around which a team is built?
We have no way of knowing. What we do know: The Capitals have been built around Ovechkin for the entirety of his professional career. And while the particulars of each springtime postseason debacle differ annually, he is the constant. That simply can’t be a coincidence.