Theme: “An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.”
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When a player who averaged 56 goals per 82 games over his career “slumps” to 32 goals, you think it is just that – a slump. You are not thinking that this player’s days as an elite goal scorer are over. And you can explain the “slump” away as a product of fitness issues, the hangover from disappointing Stanley Cup and Olympic tournaments the previous season, teams figuring the player out.
Whatever the explanation for a “slump,” you expect that player – the most prolific goal scorer since the 2004-2005 lockout – to bounce back. You expect to see a level of commitment befitting his role as captain and team leader and as the highest-paid player in the history of the sport.
Things certainly looked to be moving in that direction as Training Camp 2011 opened. Alex Ovechkin looked leaner, more focused than he did at the open of camp in 2010. And things continued to look good when he had a solid October – five goals in nine games. But we saw that movie last year, too, when he opened the 2010-2011 season with a seven-goal October (11 games). And there was the 14-goals-in-13-games October he had in 2009-2010. One might be forgiven if one was thinking, “let’s see how this plays out.”
Then came November 1st. The Caps were coming home off a pair of road losses in the Canadian west after opening the season with seven straight wins. Things did not look any better for the Caps as their guests – the Anaheim Ducks – took a 3-0 lead 29 minutes into the game. But the Caps worked their way back. Joel Ward scored at 13:23, then Dennis Wideman scored at the 16:33 mark to get the Caps to within one. All this time, though, Ovechkin was silent. He did not record a shot attempt over at 29:19 period from mid-way through the first period until 20 seconds remained in the second period.
The Ducks and Caps would exchange goals mid-way through the third period, leaving the Caps a goal behind as the clock wound down. When the puck was shot into the players’ benches to stop play and the ensuing faceoff to come in the Anaheim end, you knew that the Caps would pull goalie Tomas Vokoun and get their big offensive guns on the ice for the last 62 seconds.
When the Caps took the ice for the faceoff with 1:02 left, Coach Bruce Boudreau sent out Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, Dennis Wideman, and John Carlson as the six skaters to face the Anaheim defense. It made sense. Laich already had two assists, Ward a goal and an assist, Wideman a goal and an assist, Chimera an assist. But conspicuous by his absence was Ovechkin, who was not pleased, captured as he was on video saying something about “bad luck” or something that sounded like it…
The strategy worked when the Caps worked the puck off the wall and over to Nicklas Backstrom at the left wing faceoff dot for a shot that tied the game with just 42 seconds left. Ovechkin was on the ice for the game-winner in overtime and in fact had an assist on the game-winning goal by Backstrom. It was more of the incidental variety as the puck was deflected by his stick to Backstrom camped out at the far post. The whole episode seemed incidental to what happened in that last 62 seconds, the benching of Ovechkin.
Instead of talking about the win, the conversation moved to whether that benching would have repercussions down the road, whether there would be a split between coach and captain. Getting a definitive answer to that requires a knowledge only the principals can have, but what happened was that the Caps lost their bearings. After that game the Caps lost six of their next eight games (2-5-1) and looked ugly doing it, losing the last three in that streak by a combined score of 14-3. Ovechkin was 2-2-4, minus-6 in those eight games. That the Caps would win their last two games before Thanksgiving was merely a delay of the inevitable. They lost in grim fashion to the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres on consecutive days just after the holiday, and Boudreau’s fate was sealed, replaced by Dale Hunter on November 28th.
The deconstruction of Alex Ovechkin as an NHL icon seemed complete. The image of the gap-toothed whirlwind of boundless joy who celebrated each goal as if it was his first, who charmed fans with his accented English in commercials and interviews, was now replaced by one of a sullen, disengaged, oft-suspended (so it seemed, at least), overpaid rock star in decline who could now add “coach killer” to his resume.
Fair? Few things are ever as simple as that. Did Ovechkin “get” Boudreau fired for his benching? We would think almost certainly not. The seeds of that firing go back to the Capitals’ implosion in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs when they were beaten in seven games by the heavy underdog Montreal Canadiens. Getting swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the 2011 playoffs fueled speculation that the coach would be relieved. He had to be on a much shorter leash as the 2011-2012 season opened. If this benching happens in, say, February of 2010, little is likely to be made of it while the Caps are fat and happy and skating to a Presidents Trophy. But after all that happened over the previous 18 months, it was just one more reason to think a change should be made. The losing that followed merely sealed it.
Ovechkin did not respond immediately to Hunter’s approach to the game. But it did not take him all that long to at least seem to get it. He was 1-3-4, minus-3 in his first seven games under the new coach. However, starting with a game-winning goal performance against Winnipeg on December 15th, Ovechkin would reel off 29 goals in his last 49 games, a 49-goal pace over 82 games. The Caps were 26-17-6 in those 49 games. He was even hotter later – 14 goals in his last 22 games following his missing a game against Ottawa to a lower-body injury. That was a 52-goal pace.
Consistency was a hallmark of Ovechkin’s early career. However, in this season he displayed an odd variant of that. In the past, his consistency would manifest itself in 10-plus point segments when looking at his “tens.” This season his “consistency,” such as it was, settled more in the 6-8 point range, the problem being more a function of low assist totals than goal-scoring. In fact, in those instances in which his point totals jumped over the ten point mark (his fourth and last segments), it was his goal-scoring that jumped (seven and nine goals, respectively).
Although his output in goals jumped back up from his 2010-2011 campaign, his drop-off in other areas was stark. There was the plus-minus that dropped from plus-24 to minus-8. It should be noted that he was a minus-9 in the second and third of his ten-game segments, a period that wrapped around the dismissal of Bruce Boudreau and the arrival of Dale Hunter. But in two measures that have defined his game saw marked drop-offs – shots (down from 367 to 303) and hits (down from 241 to 215). The shot number is especially eye-opening in one respect. Fifteen times Ovechkin recorded more than five shots on goal in a game. He had a total of eight goals on 101 shots (7.9 percent shooting). The Caps were 6-7-2 in those games. When one adds that his penalty minutes dropped by more than a third (from 41 to 26; only two penalty minutes in his three-game suspension, January 24-February 1), there appears to be a behavior shift in his game. Charitably, one could call it more mature; less charitably, less dynamic.
Ovechkin’s underlying numbers were a mixed bag. On the one hand, he had the highest share of offensive zone starts among Capital forwards (20 games minimum) at 5-on-5, but among top-six forwards he had the stiffest competition faced. He was largely middle-of-the-pack in several measures: Corsi/on-ice (10th among the 15 Capital forwards in this group), shooting percentage (sixth), PDO (seventh), and while only Alexander Semin in this forward group was on ice for more goals at 5-on-5, no forward on ice for more goals against than Ovechkin. Both of those numbers (51 goals for, 56 goals against) were dramatically worse than 2010-2011 (66 and 43), a season itself worse than 2009-2010 (87 and 34). Part of that is an evolution of the Capitals style of play, but one cannot help but think Ovechkin has more than come back to the pack as a player.
Odd Ovechkin Fact… Ovechkin was suspended for the third time in his career, a three-game suspension for an illegal check on Pittsburgh Penguin defenseman Zbynek Michalek. The suspensions might be having their effect in a cumulative, if unintended sense. Looking at the ten-games following each of his three suspensions, Ovechkin was 7-12-19 after his first time-out, 6-7-13 after his second, and 5-2-7 after his suspension this season.
Game to Remember… March 19, 2012. Usually, the problem here is an embarrassment of riches to pick from. This season it is hard to find one. But on this date in March the Caps were trying to hold off the
Winnipeg Jets and the Buffalo Sabres, each only two points behind the Caps for eighth place in the East. And the Caps’ task was made more difficult in that they were visiting the Detroit Red Wings, a motivated team that was pounded by the Caps, 7-1, in their only previous meeting of the season in October. Ovechkin was the one who got the Caps started with a patient play. Instead of jumping ahead of Marcus Johansson to cause an offside, he slammed to a stop at the Detroit line to give Johansson an entry lane. As Johansson carried the puck into the right wing circle, Ovechkin lagged back as Matieu Perreault charged to the net. When Detroit defender Justin Abdelkader followed Perreault, Ovechkin jumped into the void, took a pass from Johansson, and snapped a shot past Jimmy Howard to open the scoring. He scored again late in the first period by doing it himself. Surveying the situation from the left point, Ovechkin saw an opening between Valtteri Filppula and Henrik Zetterberg. Ovechkin walked through it and wristed the puck at the Detroit net. Howard made the initial save, but Ovechkin followed his own shot and wristed the rebound past Howard to give the Caps a 3-0 lead in what would be a 5-3 win.
Game to Forget… November 26, 2011. This one might rank among the three worst in Ovechkin’s career. After a 7-0-0 start the Caps were on a 5-8-1 skid and lost five of their previous seven games, getting outscored 28-16 over the seven games, and Ovechkin was 1-2-3. The vultures were circling above coach Bruce Boudreau’s head behind the Caps’ bench. In this game against the Buffalo Sabres, though, the Caps caught a break, despite its being played on the road – a team without nine starters, including its all-world goalie, Ryan Miller. Surely, the Caps could get well against this team. Surely, you jest. Ovechkin was on ice for four of the five Sabre goals in this contest and had only two shots on goal of his own (no points). He was a minus-4 and decidedly uncaptain-like in the 5-1 loss. It was Bruce Boudreau’s last game as head coach.
Post-Season… Well, he was consistent, but not a difference-maker. Two goals and five points in the opening round against Boston, three goals and an assist in the second round against the Rangers. He had more hits in the post-season (58) than shots on goal (50), although he did lead the Caps in shots by a wide margin (Alexander Semin, 35). It was the first post-season in his career in which he averaged less than a point a game (0.64) and the first time in which he averaged less than a goal every other game (0.36/game). He was uncharacteristically quiet in elimination games, going 1-0-1, minus-1 in the three elimination games the Caps faced. It is worth noting however that four of his goals came with the Caps tied, and the other came with the Caps down a goal.
In the end… This was an uneven year for Alex Ovechkin. It started fairly well, ended fairly well in the regular season. But the middle was one large bowl of mush, and the month of November was as worthless as a Confederate dollar. His post-season was not poor, but neither was he clearly leading the way. Instead of the front man for an ensemble, he was one of the chorus. That might have been a good thing. But in the end, it wasn’t.