Sunday, May 18, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Forwards: Alex Ovechkin

“Right now I'm having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time.”
-- Steven Wright

When Alex Ovechkin scored in the first period of a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on April 8th, he hit the 50-goal mark in a season for the fifth time in his nine-year career.  He became the fifth player in NHL history to hit 50 goals five or more times in his first nine seasons in the league.

When the Capitals failed to score a goal in the Gimmick in a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay to end the Capitals’ season, Ovechkin finished a minus-35, 884th among 886 skaters who dressed for an NHL game this season.  He became the first player in league history to record 50 goals and finish minus-35 or worse.

It was a strange season for Alex Ovechkin, perhaps the most ridiculed historic season in recent memory.  And the relentless pointing out of Ovechkin’s plus-minus rating was hardly the only thing that made the 2013-2014 strange. 

Ovechkin was a terror on the power play, leading the league by a wide margin in goals (24) and second in the league in total power play scoring to teammate Nicklas Backstrom.  At even strength, though, he was not better than fifth in goal scoring (27), and he finished tied for 56th in points (39), behind such stalwart scorers as Tyler Bozak (40), Mats Zuccarello (41), and Jaden Schwartz (43).

Even his goal scoring had a strange quality to it.  Ovechkin started the year as if he was going to obliterate his own league record for goals by a left wing.  With 30 goals in his first 36 games he was on a pace for 68 goals, and he was chasing his own version of 50 goals in 50 games.  

In his last 42 games, though, he had “only” 21 goals, only nine of those at even strength.   Only seven of those total goals (one of them at even strength) came in his last 19 games. 

There was that power play, though.  Ovechkin became the fifth player since the 2004-2005 lockout to record 24 power play goals in a season.  The last time a player had more was when Todd Bertuzzi finished the 2002-2003 season with 25 power play goals for the Vancouver Canucks.  But even here Ovechkin had an odd season.  Known as the trigger man from the left wing circle on the Caps’ second-ranked power play, he had more power play assists (15) than he had at even strength (12).

And here is something lost in the wake of 50 goals and a minus-35.  His 2013-2014 season was not as productive as his 2012-2013 season.  Let’s normalize his 2012-2013 numbers to put them on the same 78-game basis as his 2013-2014 season.  Here is what we get:

Fearless’ Take… Alex Ovechkin remains the straw that stirs the drink for the Caps.  Washington was 26-9-5 in games in which he scored a goal.  He also recorded his ninth 30-goal season, the sixth player in NHL history to record 30 goals in each of his first nine seasons and the second Capital to do it (Mike Gartner).

Cheerless’ Take… Scoring goals is nice, cuz, but the Caps were 10-19-9 in games Ovechkin didn’t score a goal.  And his on-ice goals-for percentage at 5-on-5 was… what’s Peerless’ word for it?  Oh, yeah… ghastly.  He was 417th among 435 skaters playing at least 75 percent of their team’s games (35.8 percent).

Odd Ovechkin Fact…  Fact?  This season has its own section of Odd Ovechkin Facts…

  • Ovechkin scored goals in 40 games and was a “minus” player in 10 of them, an “even” player in 15 other contests.
  • He was a “minus” player in 36 of 78 games; the Caps won just ten of them.
  • In 38 games in which Ovechkin did not score a goal, he was a “minus” player in 26 of them, an “even” player in 10 more, and a “plus” player in just two of those games.
  • He was 3-1-4 in eight games with Jay Beagle logging the most time as his center (no points at even strength, no “plus” games), 48-27-75 in 70 games with other centers (27-12-39 at even strength).

Game to Remember… December 10th versus Tampa Bay.  In 51 career contests against the Tampa Bay Lightning Alex Ovechkin used Lightning goalies as his personal chew toy, mauling them for 31 goals and 66 points.  What he did not have in any of those 51 games, though, was a hat trick.  Ovechkin took care of that space on his career resume before the second period was over, helping drag the Capitals out of a 3-0 hole barely 11 minutes into the game to a 4-4 tie at the second intermission.  The last of those three goals came with just 1:12 left in the second period, and it would serve as prelude to what unfolded in the third period. 

Tampa Bay scored in the ninth minute of the third to take a 5-4 lead that they would cling to for the next ten minutes. Then, with the clock running under a minute left in regulation time, Mikhail Grabovski wrestled the puck away from defenseman Radko Gudas and slid it up the boards to Nicklas Backstrom.  From the right wing wall Backstrom moved the puck along to John Carlson, who relayed it across to Ovechkin at the top of the left wing circle.  Ovechkin let fly with a one-timer that snuck under the right arm of goalie Ben Bishop to tie the game with 32.4 seconds left, giving Ovechkin his fourth goal of the game.  It was Ovechkin’s third four-goal game of his career and first since he had two in the 2007-2008 season.  The Caps went on to win the game, 6-5, in the Gimmick.

Game to Forget… January 30th versus Columbus.  You knew it was going to be bad early.  Just 6:41 into the game Boone Jenner took a goaltender interference penalty that put the Caps on the power play.  Instead of making the Blue Jackets pay, though, it was the Caps doing the buying, a world of trouble that is.  John Carlson tried to shoot the puck down the right wing wall from the point, but the attempt was blocked out of the Columbus zone where Derek MacKenzie picked it up.  Ovechkin tore after MacKenzie from the other side of the ice but managed only to get close enough to see MacKenzie deke goalie Braden Holtby to the ice and slide the puck past Holtby’s right pad to give the Blue Jackets a 1-0 lead.

Ryan Johansen scored for Columbus less than five minutes later.  Ovechkin was on the ice for that one, too.  Brandon Dubinsky scored just 24 seconds into the second period, and Ovechkin was there.  Johansen got another one 12 minutes into the period.  Yup, Ovechkin was on the ice.  Cam Atkinson scored less than five minutes into the third period.  Uh-huh… Ovechkin got an up close and personal look.  Ovechkin’s minus-5 for the evening was one of six minus-5 performances in the league for the season, the others being: Matt Duchene, Victor Hedman, Jamie McGinn, Ryan O’Reilly, and Sidney Crosby.

In the end…

It is a measure of how routine a player can be scoring 50 goals a season when it is forgotten in the wake of another, less flattering statistic.  That was the persistent theme in Alex Ovechkin’s season, though, that plus-minus number.  It ended up being historic, not for its own importance (there have been five other instances of a player finishing minus-35 or worse since 2005-2006, in addition to Ovechkin), but for the fact that it occurred with a 50-goal season being recorded. 

Ovechkin’s 51 goals made it five 50-goal seasons since he came into the league in 2005-2006, more than twice as many 50-goal seasons as the next players in line, Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Steven Stamkos with two apiece.  He has almost a third of all the 50-goal seasons scored in his nine seasons in the league (18).

However, between the curious experiment of pairing him with Jay Beagle for eight games and the frustratingly poor shooting of his most frequent linemates (Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson combined to shoot 6.1 percent at 5-on-5, 12 goals on 197 shots), Ovechkin had odd circumstances to deal with as well as his iffy defense.

And let’s face it; if you have a minus-35 and 50 goals, you are going to get attention of a sort in which you are not interested.  Here is something to ponder in terms of context.  The other five players to post a minus-35 or worse since Ovechkin came into the league combined for a total of 57 goals in the seasons in which they posted those dismal plus-minus numbers.  They were not, with the exception of Marc Recchi (28 goals, minus-36 with Pittsburgh and Carolina in 2005-2006), high producers on offense.

It made for a season that was in a sense déjà vu for Alex Ovechkin, thrilling fans with another 50-goal season.  But being the captain of a team that missed the playoffs while he was posting one of the worst even strength seasons in recent memory for such a prolific scorer, it made for a season that one hopes might be lost to amnesia in other respects as the years go by.

Grade: C

Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America