Sunday, September 15, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 16

After a night of Capitals hockey, we are down to 16 days to Opening Night, giving Fearless a chance to continue his jaunt through the rows and columns of the periodic table of the elements.  Next up…

“But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”
We didn’t make that up. That comes from the Book of Revelation in the Holy Bible (Revelation 21:8, for those scoring at home).  Fire needs no explanation.  Brimstone?  That would be another name for sulfur.  You really, really don’t want a part of element number 16.

Sulfur has been known about for millennia, as its Biblical reference suggests.  In addition to its use in hellfire imagery, it found use as a fumigant and in Egypt to treat a peculiar case of conjunctivitis called “trachoma (granular eyelid).”  In Rome it was used for medicine and for bleaching cloth.  In ancient China it had medicinal uses and later was used in gunpowder.

Among scientists there was uncertainty over whether sulfur was a compound or an element.  It would be left to Antoine Lavoisier, considered by many to be the Father of Modern Chemistry, to settle the matter and identify sulfur as an element in 1777.

The name itself comes from the Latin, “sulphur,” which is derived from a word meaning “to burn.”  This has led to alternative spellings for the element, either “sulfur” or “sulphur” being acceptable.

Today, sulfur is used as a means to derive other chemicals that include it as a component.  Foremost among them is sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive mineral acid.  It is capable of corroding metals, human flesh, even stone.  Like an element from which it is derived, it has an alternative name – “Oil of Vitriol.” 

Sulfur is also used in the vulcanization process for rubber, making it more durable.  It is an important process in the manufacture of hockey pucks.  It is used in the manufacture of fungicides and pesticides, and in food preservation.  It is an essential component of all living cells, a part of amino acids produced or ingested by the body and contained in proteins and enzymes.  The bonds that sulfur forms in peptide chains (short amino acid chains as opposed to the longer amino acid chains that form proteins) lend durability and rigidity.  There are some organisms that use sulfur (via hydrogen sulfide) as an energy source.  Others “breathe” sulfur (via sulfates).  You might be familiar with the latter; some “sulfate-reducing” bacteria reside in the intestine and produce a foul smelling gas – flatulence.

To recap, we have the original “brimstone” visiting the horrors of hell upon the wicked.  Its name derives from words meaning “to burn.”  It is the business element in the highly corrosive sulfuric acid. It is also used to make things stronger, and more durable.  It can be used as an energy source.  It resembles a high-energy player who can be highly corrosive on the ice, a player who lends some strength and rigidity to his team, and who can serve something of a medicinal purpose through either his production or his physical style of play.

Sulfur… the “Tom Wilson” of the table of elements of the periodic table.

Washington Capitals 2013-2014 Previews -- Forwards: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

Theme: “Patience and time do more than strength or passion.”
-- Jean de La Fontaine

In 2004, when Alex Ovechkin was drafted by the Washington Capitals, the young winger said, “I've been waiting for this day for maybe two years."   Nine years later, Caps fans are still waiting for the Stanley Cup that was almost assumed to be waiting for the engraver on that draft day.  It certainly is not the fault of Alex Ovechkin that the Caps have not won a championship; there are too many factors that impact an outcome in hockey for even a player of Ovechkin’s stature to command.

It has not been the smoothest of rides for Ovechkin, even with all the individual awards and accolades bestowed upon him.  Hart Trophies… suspensions.  First team all-star nominations… bitter Olympic defeat.  Regular season titles… early playoff exits.  It has been an uneven ice sheet on which Ovechkin skated over his first seven seasons.  And, when he stumbled out of the gate to start the abbreviated 2013 NHL season after being an outspoken supporter of the lockout that consumed almost half of the regular season, it looked as if he would hit another deep rut on the ice sheet.

Ovechkin started the 2013 season learning a new position – right wing – while still being the go-to guy for the Caps.  It showed.  He started the season 5-5-10 in his first 16 games, at one point balking at the move to right wing, at which point new head coach Adam Oates reassigned him to his new position, only it was playing alongside Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb.  The Caps stumbled to a 5-10-1 record in those 16 games.

Then, February 23rd happened.  After a scoreless first period against the New Jersey Devils, Ovechkin scored on a one-timer from the left wing circle 5:20 into the second period.  By the time the final horn sounded, Ovechkin had a hat trick and an assist, and the Caps had a 5-1 win.  Starting with that game, Ovechkin would finish the last 32 games with a 27-19-46 scoring line, a 69-goal pace per 82 games.  He recorded a goal in 19 of those 32 games.  There were only 17 players in the league who finished the entire 48-game season with as many as 19 goals.

As Ovechkin went, so went the Caps.  He scored goals in 24 of 48 games overall.  In the 24 games in which he recorded a goal, the Caps had a record of 19-3-2.  Washington was 11-3-1 in games in which Ovechkin recorded a power play goal.  The Caps were only 8-15-1, however, in the 24 games in which he failed to record any goal.

However, this being Ovechkin, his high accomplishment – a regular season that would end with his third Hart Trophy as most valuable player and third Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer – would be accompanied by another playoff low.  He would be held to two points in a seven-game first round playoff loss to the New York Rangers and would not score a goal after netting one in Game 1.  That he suffered a broken foot blocking a shot in Game 6, playing through the injury in the last two games of the series, is likely to be remembered far less than his suffering another early playoff exit.

Fearless’ Take…

Only three players in the history of the NHL have won more Hart Trophies than Alex Ovechkin – Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, and Eddie Shore.  Only Gretzky and Mario Lemieux have won more Ted Lindsay Awards as most outstanding player.  No one has won more Richard Trophies.  He is one of only 26 players in the history of the league to win an Art Ross Trophy as leading scorer.  He is a six-time first team NHL all-star, including last season.  And, he has done this while being remarkably durable for a player who plays as physical a game as he does.  In eight seasons he has missed 21 of 622 regular season games and none of the 58 playoff games for the Caps in six post-seasons.  He has four 50-goal seasons in eight years and was on an 82-game pace for a fifth last season.  No other player has more than two 50-goal seasons over that period. 

Then there are the playoffs.  For all the grief Ovechkin has taken in six post-seasons, only six players have more goals in those six years (all of them have played in at least ten more games), and only 11 have more points (again, all have played in at least ten more games).  These are things to keep in the back of your mind when the inevitable Mike Milbury screed comes oozing through your television screen this season.

Cheerless’ Take…

We can put this whole thing about whether Ovechkin is a great player under the back porch for good.  He is.  But… there is that whole playoff thing.  And for a finisher, he hasn’t been too much of a "finisher."  In six seasons the Caps have played 12 games in which they could have eliminated their playoff opponent.  They are 3-9 in those games.  Ovechkin is 5-3-8, minus-3 in those games and has not had a point in his last four series clinching opportunities, three of which the Caps lost.  He is 2-2-4, minus-2 in Game 7’s and has not had a point in his last three such games, two of which the Caps lost.  In his last 21 post-season games overall he is 6-5-11, minus-4. When this trend gets reversed, maybe those early exits do, too.

The Big Question… Will moving to the Metropolitan Division cramp Alex Ovechkin’s style?

Alex Ovechkin has played his entire career to date in the Southeast Division.  In 203 career regular season games against the “Southleast,” Ovechkin finished 123-147-270, plus-35.  On a per-82 games basis that works out to 50-59-109, plus-14.  Impressive.  Now, what is his per-82 game scoring line against non-Southeast Division teams over his career?  It is 51-45-96, plus-10.  Ovechkin has hardly pumped up his numbers against the perceived “weak sisters” of the Southeast. 

One could, however, make the point that comparing last year’s production against the Southeast against that of the teams that would make up the new Metropolitan Division, Ovechkin did benefit from weak Southeast competition.  He was 16-13-29, plus-10 in 18 games against the Southeast, 10-8-18, minus-2 in 20 games against teams that today make up the new Metropolitan Division (he did not play against Columbus last season).

His career suggests that he will get his goals in the new division, but he might not get his points.  That is where the rest of the club is going to step up and finish or clean up chances or rebounds Ovechkin provides on the ice.

In the end…

We are past the time when a Stanley Cup is to be assumed in the Ovechkin era.  The Capitals are thought as much to be no more than a playoff bubble team as they are a real contender.  Whether the Caps are or are not a playoff team, let alone a serious Stanley Cup contender, Alex Ovechkin is likely to get his goals and points.  He and head coach Adam Oates seem to be on the same page to a greater extent than Ovechkin has been with any of his previous three coaches.  Oates, who had no training camp and barely half a season to find ways to deploy Ovechkin, has a full training camp to add new wrinkles, and Ovechkin has the benefit of 48 games plus a post-season at a new position.  He might not score goals at a 55-goal pace over 82 games, as he did last year in 48 games, but that might be a product a number of factors over which Ovechkin has little control.  For example, the current state of the NHL these days, scoring-wise, or the fact that the power play will have changes made to it with the departure of Mike Ribeiro to Phoenix.

Still, Ovechkin is – and will remain for the foreseeable future – the proverbial straw that stirs the drink for the Caps.  If he is not the rambunctious kid who celebrated every goal by abusing the glass along the walls or putting teammates in physical jeopardy, he seemed to have a bit more joy about him last year than he had in either of the previous two seasons.  That sort of energy can be a source of momentum for the club as much as the volume of production he generates at the offensive end of the ice.

Alex Ovechkin is still compiling a body of work, but he is now a much more fully formed player than in those early days.  As far as his total game is concerned, he is not likely to ever approach his goal-scoring peak, but he is probably a more rounded all-around player (even if there will be times when his defense looks uninspired).  Whether that will be enough to finally push him – and the Capitals – to the summit of the league, well, we are at the point where we can only be patient and let time answer that question.

Projection: 82 games, 44-46-90, plus-16

Photo: Source: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America