Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Washington Capitals: What is Russian for "Pinata?"

We would like to take you through another scribble that compares two individuals.  Both are hockey players, both come from the same part of the world, both are about the same age, the teams of each have been in the playoffs the past four years.  They even have similar individual post-season statistics:

  • Player 1: 11-21-32, even, 27 PIMs. 5 PPG, 2 GWG
  • Player 2: 16-15-31, even, 22 PIMs, 5 PPG, 2 GWG

Their teams have endured similar fates:

  • Player 1: 16-17 (games won/lost), 2-3 (series won/lost)
  • Player 2: 17-20 (games won/lost), 2-4 (series won/lost)

But Player 2 seems to invite a very different response to his individual performance than that of Player 1.  Some of the descriptions* of Player 2 include:

“...HIS history, HIS history is the same history. Whether we’re talking about Olympic competition or international competition, same thing, where HE comes up so short and then just offers excuse after excuse afterward.”

“...The greatest player in hockey had zero points in the final five games of this series. ZERO points… your conspiracy theory is to blame-deflect, it’s to distract attention from the most pertinent fact of this series: the greatest player came up small. He froze up on the ice.”

“...When someone starts whining about the officiating when he’s had a tough series without production and tries to point the finger away from himself, [it] just doesn’t sit well with hockey guys.”

“HE”…”the greatest player in hockey ( a line delivered with two scoops of sarcasm)”…the “whiner”… Caps fans have probably figured out that player as Alex Ovechkin.  He is “Player 2,” above.  But the player to whom he is compared here isn’t Sidney Crosby.  The narrative that is now set in concrete is that Crosby is a better player, a better leader, more accomplished in wins and losses on bigger stages, the very personification of “hockey virtues” in ways that Ovechkin is not.  No, the player to whom Ovechkin is compared here is another Pittsburgh Penguin, Evgeni Malkin, the one who “lives up to lofty standards” (ok, that’s a hometeam sentiment), and his “patience makes a difference” (ok, another home team sentiment).  The national media…not a peep.

It makes you think this isn’t even a Russian matter anymore (if it ever was).  This is a case of the Very Serious People in sports journalism needing to demonstrate their gravitas by engaging in something bordering on disgust over what it is that Alex Ovechkin does or says, on the ice or off.  And the jumping on with both feet is not contained to the usual suspects in the hockey media or sports talk television.  Even those who do have that gravitas hard earned from years of thoughtful commentary join in (in fairness, Tom Boswell spares no one, not even those of us who count themselves as fans of the Caps, and I find myself agreeing with a lot he said).  

Ovechkin did not help himself with unfortunate comments about the officiating in the series against the New York Rangers that concluded on Monday.  Raising the notion of some dark conspiracy to either extend that series or achieve a result favoring the Rangers is something no player should engage in, whether he believes it or not.  But that is at least as likely a reflection of bitterness over a tough loss as it might be one of the player’s character.

And we get that what passes for sports journalism on television, radio, or the Internet in 2013 is more cage match than reporting or informed opinion.  If you aren’t shouting or displaying attitude, no one is going to be listening or clicking.

Perhaps this is what goes with the territory of being a star.  Ovechkin isn’t the only player in professional sports who has incurred the wrath of the pundit class in sport journalism.  But in hockey, he seems to have become a magnet for broadsides of this nature.  It is hard to recall anyone at his level in North American sport upon whom so much invective has been heaped when still in his prime.

What makes this confounding is that he should be the target of this when hockey is, by its nature, as dependent on team effort as any team sport.  A star plays perhaps 20 minutes out of 60 a night and performs with four other skaters when he is on the ice, all of whom are ingredients to the star’s success.  Hockey acknowledges this fact with it prominent use of assists – primary and secondary – to award points.

And it is not as if he is the only “star” to have underperformed in the playoffs.  Just looking at the Hart Trophy winners since Ovechkin last won the trophy in 2009, Henrik Sedin is 2-6-8 in his last nine playoff games covering two series, both of which the Vancouver Canucks lost.  Corey Perry is 2-8-10 in his last 13 playoff games over two series, both of which the Anaheim Ducks lost.  And there is Malkin, who is having a fine 2013 post season (3-10-13 in seven games), but his Penguin teams still have underperformed relative to the often cited “expectations.” 

Even Sidney Crosby, who is 12-24-36 in his last 25 playoff games, captained a team that lost to lower-seeded teams in two series and was pushed to seven games by a spunky, but heavily overmatched (on paper) New York Islander team in the first round of this season’s playoffs.  There is no talk of Crosby being all about numbers in his last three playoff appearances, despite his team not performing appreciably better than Ovechkin’s.  On the other hand, when it was Ovechkin who had the numbers (folks might forget that he was 25-25-50 in his first 37 career playoff games), it was about his team (and by extension him) losing.

Those who are inclined to see the worst in Ovechkin will consider this an “apology” for Ovechkin’s performance and behavior.  You are entitled to that opinion.  The fact is, Ovechkin did underperform, and his comments were impolitic and immature at the very least (although kudos to Capitals general manager George McPhee for having his player’s back).  He might, as teammate Mike Ribeiro put it, “still [be] a young player who has a lot to learn about the game and how to play it.”  And the clock is ticking – loudly – on his ever winning a championship.  But the unvarnished glee, the posed indignation, the “I can top that” tirades used to denigrate his play or impugn his character lack any sense of proportion. 

Ovechkin’s teams have a history of underperforming in the post-season, and as the star he is going to be the lightning rod for that.  It might not be fair, but it is life.  However, it also seems to be his lot in life that the teams on which he plays are not deep enough, talented enough, or even lucky enough to beat or surpass in terms of achievement those of Crosby (whose Penguins teams were and are more talented and deeper than the Caps, and whose 2010 Canadian Olympic team that bested Ovechkin's Russian Olympic team was one of the most loaded collections of talent since the Olympics started permitting professionals to play).  In that respect, Ovechkin will get no quarter from his critics.  The only way he will silence them is to win.

* Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post compiled this greatest hits package on his “D.C. Sports Bog” at the Washington Post.

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