There was a moment Monday, one that will be lost in yet another restless offseason, in which it seemed it could be Alex Ovechkin’s night. In one first-period shift, the Washington Capitals right winger crushed helpless New York Rangers defenseman John Moore in the open ice. He then tracked down Steve Eminger and delivered another blow. And before he returned to the bench, he lined up Ryan McDonagh, jarring him. The boards rattled. Verizon Center roared.
But as the clock wound down, and another spring of hockey ended in the District, Ovechkin was left to look down at his feet, glance up at the scoreboard, and consider another long summer ahead. His early hits scarcely rattled the Rangers, and his lone shot couldn’t get past infallible New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist, so Washington is back in a familiar spot: Wondering when and how — and, more increasingly, if — the Ovechkin-led Capitals will ever advance deep into the NHL playoffs.
“It’s very frustrating,” Ovechkin said after what became an unsightly 5-0 loss to the Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. “That’s the whole point. You’re here to win the games and try to win the Cup.”
Is that, now, a reasonable quest? What we have, by way of evidence: Monday’s team-wide clunker putting the bold and italics on Ovechkin’s own uneven performance. Only once in five previous years of playing in the postseason had Ovechkin gone consecutive games with neither a goal nor an assist. He closed 2013 with five such games, and the Capitals failed to score in either Game 6 or Game 7.
“You can take it for granted sometimes, but you kind of expect that he’s going to score every time he shoots the puck,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Playoffs is just a different animal.”
That is a lesson Capitals fans and their children know by now, and Ovechkin is just the latest star to bear the burden of association with those failures. The two — the franchise and the focal point — have stood in lockstep for years, dating from their first playoff appearance together in 2008, when there seemed to be only promise and potential ahead. But Monday, they joined each other in another flame-out that ended another season. Ovechkin’s Capitals — and they are his Capitals, because he has both the “C” for “contract” and the “C” for “captain” — have now won three playoff series and lost six, and have never advanced past the second round.
Even Ovechkin said Monday reminded him of another data point on what is now a chart of indignities — the 6-2 Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh in 2009 on this same Verizon Center ice.
“We win one game, and the series would be over,” Ovechkin said, simultaneously thinking back four years and four hours. “But we don’t win one game. We get the lead 2-0, and we should take one game up there. We didn’t take it, and they bounced back, and get the lead and win the series.”
Vacant disappointment crossed his face. These are the only playoff memories Ovechkin has, and they fit with the blown three-games-to-one lead against Montreal in 2010, the inexplicable second-round sweep against Tampa Bay the following year. The more the Capitals try to distance themselves from their organization’s shaky postseason past, the more they seem to add chapters to it.
“We have good group of guys who support each other,” Ovechkin said. “Nobody was pointing finger, ‘Okay, it was your fault we lose the game.’ It’s everybody’s fault. It’s all the guys’ fault. My fault, [Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Ribeiro]. It’s everybody.”
Monday night, when the game was still scoreless and Ovechkin went on his checking spree — he had 13 hits when the Capitals needed goals — the crowd responded to his energy. “O-vi! O-vi! O-vi!” they chanted. Betting against him and the Capitals at that moment would have seemed unwise. Consider that in the scope of Ovechkin’s career, this may well be remembered as the year he rediscovered himself. After four straight seasons of declining production, he found an advocate in first-year Coach Adam Oates, switched positions from left wing to right, and switched his fortunes, leading the league in goals, becoming a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP once again.
But there is an incongruity now, too, with that narrative and what happened in the series against the Rangers. In Game 1, he got the Capitals on the board by stuffing Mike Green’s errant shot off the boards past Lundqvist, a willing, legitimate and frustrating nemesis. In Game 2, he assisted on Green’s goal that got by Lundqvist in overtime, and he looked to be playing his part.
Yet when the series got to New York, he all but vanished for two games, succumbing to Rangers defensemen Dan Girardi and McDonagh. Not only did he fail to score, he barely got shots on net, just three in two games, both losses. He responded with a more active Game 5 at home, when he fired off nine shots and might have beaten Lundqvist a couple of times in a game the Capitals won, 2-1, in overtime.
His best chance in Game 6 came on a little backhand, one on which he had Lundqvist leaning to the wrong side of the net. Count the times that happened in this series; you won’t need more than one hand. Ovechkin missed that shot, and the Rangers won, 1-0. It was another reminder that the Capitals need him not only to play well, to be active and engaged. They need him to score.
“You got to find ways to score,” Alzner said. “And if he can’t, then other guys got to find ways to score. And if no one can, this happens.”
And so there was Monday night. In the third period, with the Rangers up by an inconceivable five goals and Verizon Center well on its way to embracing the uneasy silence of the offseason, Ovechkin sat on the bench and bowed his head, staring at his skates and the floor — and the future as well. Over the weekend, Ovechkin was asked what he had learned about closing out playoff series when the Capitals had the chance since 2008, his first appearance in the postseason.
“I don’t remember 2008,” he said. It was his way of saying past years don’t matter. But now, six years in to his postseason career, it is all Ovechkin and the Capitals have: Expectations built on accomplishments and flair, and collapses that introduce summer after summer of wondering when any of it will change.