Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Self versus Team -- Two Perspectives

“For the past couple of years, anytime anyone has ever talked about Ovechkin, it has been within the context of goals, specifically how many he’ll end up scoring before the end of his career. It seems almost with every goal Ovechkin scores these days comes with it a detailed synopsis of which all-time great he’s hunting down in career goals. (Checks notes. Notices that Ovechkin needs two more goals to pass Marcel Dionne for fifth all-time and 11 to usurp Brett Hull for fourth.)

This has to stop, for the good of the Washington Capitals. If Ovechkin does come back the way everyone expects he will, it has to stop being about goals. You know why? Because for all of his brilliance, for all of his otherworldly and unparalleled scoring ability, Alex Ovechkin has one Stanley Cup in 16 seasons.  That’s why. In fact, when you look at his career in totality, the ledger of playoff flops and disappointments is far more populated than playoff triumphs.”

Well, well.  Now isn’t that a piece of fine writing?  And no, this isn’t some speculative piece written in the early 2010’s, when every pundit with a pen seemed to think Ovechkin was (a) all about goals, and (b) would be better off playing anywhere else but Washington, D.C.  This was written by The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell on Wednesday of this week, who has some advice for Caps’ fans added for free…

“If I’m a fan of the Washington Capitals, nothing would thrill me more than to see Ovechkin to come into training camp in the fall and say the following: ‘I could not possibly care less how many goals I score this season or for the rest of my career. If I score 18 goals this season and we win the Stanley Cup, that would be the greatest thing ever. I’m done chasing ghosts. If I catch them, that’s great. But it is no longer how I will define my career. If sitting out games during the regular season to save myself for the playoffs and/or taking a lesser role later in my career negatively affects my overall numbers, I’m just fine with that as long as we keep chasing Stanley Cups.’”

He doesn’t come out and call Ovechkin a selfish, goals-at-all-costs player, but you can see that label from where Campbell sits.  We thought that tired trope was retired years ago.  But Campbell decided to revive it by drawing a bright line from Ovechkin’s chase of a goal scoring record in the regular season to playoff disappointment.  No one is going to argue that the Caps have been disappointing in the postseason for much of Ovechkin’s career.  In 14 postseasons since 2008, when the Caps first qualified for the playoffs in Year 3 of Ovechkin’s career, the Caps participated 13 times and won more games (69 as of Tuesday) than all but three other franchises – Pittsburgh (99), Boston (88), and Chicago (80).  On the other hand, they were eliminated in the first round six times (including 2020, after the round-robin play-in) and were beaten in the second round six other times.  Only their Stanley Cup season of 2018 stands out for having advanced past the second round.

But is Ovechkin, and his pursuit of regular season records, a cause for playoff disappointment?  He is 71-64-135, plus-8, in 141 games for his career (every playoff game the Caps played in that period) – first in goals overall, fourth among wingers in assists, third in points, eighth in points per game (0.96) among 311 players participating in at least 50 postseason games.  He isn’t even slowing down all that much in recent years.  In three postseasons since the Caps won the Cup, he is 10-8-18 in 20 playoff games (0.90 points per game).  By way of comparison, the contemporary player with whom he is most compared – Sidney Crosby – is 3-3-6 in 13 postseason games over the same three-year span.

But his contemporary is not the relevant comparison here.  Ovechkin is a player painted as one in pursuit of regular season records at the expense (even if unintended) of postseason success, of putting self above team.  How is such a portrait reconciled with another otherworldly (an adjective Campbell uses to describe Ovechkin) talent?  One who has been in the league six seasons and has established himself as the best offensive talent, by miles, in the NHL?  In the regular season, that is.  In those six regular seasons, Connor McDavid has four 100-point seasons, including this past season in which he posted 105 points in just 56 games, a 154-point pace for 82 games, which would have been the most points for a full NHL season since Mario Lemieux recorded 161 points in 70 games in 1995-1996.

But in those six seasons, McDavid has been to the postseason three times, and his Edmonton Oilers have one playoff series win to show for it, that coming in his sophomore season in 2016-2017 (Ovechkin’s Capitals were in the postseason in four of his first six seasons with two series wins).  McDavid, who has averaged 1.41 points per game in 407 career regular season games, has 22 points in 21 career postseason games (1.05 per game, tenth among players dressing for at least 15 games).

Where is the sense of disappointment?  Edmonton has won eight postseason games in McDavid’s career (tied for 20th since he came into the league in 2015-2016), and they have a .381 winning percentage (22nd).  Where is the question about whether posing gaudy points numbers in the regular season isn’t coming at the expense of postseason success?  And for that matter, where is the underlying story that followed Ovechkin around that the player (and perhaps the team) would be so much better off in another city?  Such stories just aren’t there, or at the very least, the volume on any such story has been turned down.

Look, Campbell is hardly an outlier in this kind of commentary.  And he is certainly not unique in this kind of focus on Ovechkin, while McDavid seems to get a pass (mostly, it seems from the northern press, who as often as not read like “fans” and not “reporters” when it comes to McDavid, but that’s just what it appears to be from our perch) for his team’s postseason failures in his early career.  Both teams have had disappointments in the postseason, although it is Ovechkin’s Caps who have a Cup (albeit in his 13th season).  But for now, while Ovechkin is treated as a player in pursuit of goals instead of championships, McDavid is hailed for point totals and highlight reel end-to-end rushes, while his lack of postseason success is rarely, if ever mentioned, and when done so, usually in the context of weak teammate support or ineffective team management.

The failures of the Capitals and the Oilers cannot be laid at the feet of Ovechkin or McDavid.  Both are extraordinary talents in different ways, Ovechkin as the greatest goal scorer of his generation (or perhaps ever, when era-corrected stats are considered), McDavid as the most prolific point producer of his era and perhaps the most electrifying skater in decades.  Years from now, both will have their names featured prominently in the NHL record book.  We daresay that both will retire with Stanley Cups on their resumes. But the treatment these players have received in their careers, especially in their early careers, has been quite different, and that says far more about who is doing the writing than who is doing the playing.

Photo: Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Washington Capitals vs. Boston Bruins -- The Cousins Weigh In on Game 2

If it is the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins in the playoffs, then it’s overtime, one-goal hockey.  The Caps held a late lead, gave it up in regulation, and lost Game 2 in the first minute of overtime, finding themselves tied with the Bruins at a game apiece as they head off to Boston looking to regain home-ice advantage.  But the cousins cannot let them leave town without imparting their unique spin on what transpired on Monday night.

Guys, let’s get to the big question, will the way the Caps lost this game have any lingering effects on their performance?

Fearless: Certainly not.  This is a team that has been resilient and resolute all season long with a knack for winning one-goal games.  And, being a veteran group, they’ve seen this kind of thing before, giving up a late lead and coming back late when behind.  Keep in mind that the Caps have now played four consecutive one-goal games, going back to the last two games of the regular season, and won three of them, losing one – last night – in overtime.  The Caps have bigger issues than whether the way the lost Game 2 will linger.

Cheerless: I think it was the baseball great Old Yeller…

Peerless: You mean Bob Feller?

Cheerless: Yeller, Feller, whatever…Bob Feller, who said, “Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday's success or put its failures behind and start over again. That's the way life is, with a new game every day.”  If the Caps remember that despite being nicked up, losing Lars Eller, and using a goalie who played less than 200 minutes this season, they were less than three minutes from taking a 2-0 series lead against a team most folks said would leave the Caps a pile of road kill on the two-lane, they can put the loss behind them.

Peerless: Speaking of Lars Eller.  Just how big is his absence?

Cheerless: Bigger’n that prize pig at the county fair.  Eller plays in all situations, plays up and down the lines, chips in offense, is counted on for defense.  He is the most versatile skater on the roster.  He’s the “everything bagel” of the Caps.  And that means his absence shakes up the roster in ways perhaps no other forward’s absence would.  It affects 5-on-5, the second power play, defense, and penalty killing.  It's like losing more than one player.

Fearless: The Caps were 27-12-5 in the regular season with Eller in the lineup, 9-3-0 in the 12 games he missed.  On that basis, it is not a panic situation.  But Boston does provide unique challenges, most of all having one of, if not the best forward line in the league.  Eller’s absence means that the Caps are going to be defensively weak down the middle against that line, even if you raise Nic Dowd to that position.  The Caps are already thin at the position with Kuznetsov out (although defense is not his strength), but with Eller out, that problem of stability among the forward lines becomes magnified.  If Kuznetsov is still out of the lineup, and the Caps resort to T.J. Oshie and call-up Connor McMichael in the middle to plug the holes, things get dicey quickly.

Peerless: Is it too early to be concerned about the lack of scoring from the top two lines?

Fearless: I assume by “top two lines,” you’re asking about Alex Ovechkin (0-2-2 in the first two games), Anthony Mantha (0-1-1), and Nicklas Backstrom (0-0-0), with maybe a little Daniel Sprong (0-1-1) thrown in.  Slumps happen, even to elite players.  Backstrom is 1-1-2, even, in seven games going back to the last five games of the regular season and has one goal in his last 14 games.  Ovechkin is six games without a goal (and a minus-5 in the process), although he’s become the author of the redirected puck lately with teammates tipping his shot attempts with some success.  Mantha is a dozen games without a goal, and he has some really good chances last night that he just did not finish.  Spring is four games without a goal, but with him ice time has become an issue with less than ten minutes played in each of the first two games of this series.  Now that this is a best-of-five series, with Boston holding the home ice advantage, the Caps need to get these guys turning on the red lights.

Cheerless: What’s grits without possum gravy?  Yeah, it’s nice that the Caps are getting goals from the bottom six (Garnet Hathaway and Nic Dowd have combined for half of the Caps’ six goals in the two games to far), but those are the grits guys.  Getting offense from them is helpful (like in the 2018 postseason), but you’re not going to get a regular diet of offense from that group.  The four guys you mentioned, cuz, are 0-for-27 shooting so far.  You’d like to think they are too good for that to continue, but it’s a short series now, and over so few games, it’s possible that they can stay stuck in that rut.  If they do, this series isn’t going to last much longer.  The Caps need that gravy from the top two lines.

Peerless: Is the Craig Anderson feel-good story over? 

Cheerless: Geez, cuz…already?  He stopped 65 of 70 shots in two games (.929 save percentage, third among 13 goalies to play in the postseason so far), including 44 of 48 in the overtime loss on Monday night.  He stopped 39 consecutive shots after Patrice Bergeron scored 9:21 into the first period until the Bruins tied the game off a scrum in the goal crease with 2:49 left in the game.  Anderson kept the Caps in the game.  Don’t write him off just yet.

Fearless:  However you describe Anderson’s story, there is likely much to be written of it in the remaining games.  The Caps have been worked into a corner as far as their goaltending is concerned.  Vitek Vanecek is still day-to-day with a lower body injury, and Ilya Samsonov hasn’t played a minute in anger in almost three weeks (a 23-save 3-0 loss to Pittsburgh on May 1st).  If the Caps can get some other players out of their ruts, avoid the occasional (usually consequential) brain fart in their own end, Anderson has given the Caps enough quality goaltending to be competitive in this series. 

Peerless: OK, guys, it’s a day off, but what’s your soundtrack for Game 3 going to be?

Fearless: I’m going with Respighi’s “Pines of the Appian Way”… the relentless, unyielding march to victory… 

Cheerless: Gotta be Hank Williams and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire”…

“Comb your hair and paint and powder

You act proud and I'll act prouder

You sing loud and I'll sing louder

Tonight we're settin' the woods on fire…”

Peerless: Yeah, well…I’ll just go listen to the general… 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Washington Capitals vs. Boston Bruins -- East Division Semi-Final Game 2: Bruins 4 - Capitals 3 (OT)

The Washington Capitals hosted the Boston Bruins in Game 2 of their opening round playoff matchup on Monday night.  The Caps were looking to hold serve with a second straight win on home ice, while the Bruins were anxious to gain a split in Washington before heading back to Boston for Games 3 and 4.  Boston scored late in regulation to tie the game, and then they scored less than a minute into overtime to take a 4-3 decision and send the teams to Boston tied at a game apiece.

First Period

Boston opened the scoring 5:05 into the game when Charlie Coyle got a step on a Capital defender, carried the puck around the back of the net, and fed Jake DeBrusk at the top of the blue paint, where DeBrusk slam dunked the puck off the skate of defenseman Justin Schultz and in to make it 1-0 for the visitors.

David Pastrnak took a holding penalty 6:19 into the period, and the Caps converted just 12 seconds later.  Alex Ovechkin settled a pass from John Carlson his skate, and from his office in the left wing circle snapped a shot that T.J. Oshie deflected with the end of his stick blade past goalie Tuukka Rask, and it was 1-1.

Boston regained the lead when Pastrnak gloved down an attempted aerial clear by Dmitry Orlov and fed Patrice Bergeron, who ripped a shot from between the tops of the circles over the glove of goalie Craig Anderson and under the crossbar to make it 2-1, B’s, 9:21 into the period.

The Bruins got their first power play of the game 12:46 into the period when Nic Dowd went off for roughing.  Boston failed to convert after Brad Marchand negated the advantage by taking a roughing call at the 13:54 mark, and it gave the Caps a chance to tie the game once more.  Garnet Hathaway was credited with a goal that pinballed off several players

-- The Caps had eight of the first nine shots of the game, but Boston outshot the Caps over the remainder of the period, 17-10, the teams finishing the period with 18 shots on goal apiece.  Boston out-attempted the Caps, 29-27, over the first 20 minutes.

-- The Caps were credited with 18 hits in the period, four of them by Tom Wilson to lead the team.

-- Boston won the battle in the circle in the first period, winning 15 of23 draws. Lars Eller was the only Capital taking more than one faceoff and finishing over 50 percent (5-for-9/55.6 percent).  T.J. Oshie was 0-for-6.

-- Only three Caps did not have a shot attempt in the period: Justin Schultz, Zdeno Chara, and Nicklas Backstrom.  Daniel Sprong led the Caps with three shots on goal.

Second Period

Boston got its second power play of the game when John Carlson was sent off for tripping at 6:22 of the period.  The Bruins did not convert, and the teams played on, still tied at 2-2.  The teams were hit with coincidental minors 13:31 into the period when Connor Clifton went off for interference, and Tom Wilson going to the box for embellishment. And then, Brad Marchand and Anthony Mantha were penalized for slashing and high-sticking, respectively, at 14:11 of the period, keeping the teams at even, if reduced manpower.  A third coincidental set of penalties was called at 16:54 when Nick Jensen for the Caps and Craig Smith for Boston went off for minor roughing calls.

Despite all the hijinks, the teams went to the second intermission as they came out of the first, tied 2-2.

-- Lars Eller did not play the last 9:26 of the period, leaving with an apparent injury.

-- Boston outshot the Caps, 15-9 in the period and out-attempted them, 29-14.

-- The Caps out-hit the Bruins, 28-19, through two period, Tom Wilson leading the team with five.

Third Period

Washington went to the man advantage just 2:05 into the period when Nick Ritchie was sent off for roughing, the seventh roughing call for the teams in this game.  Washington did not convert, but they went right back on the power play when Taylor Hall was called for tripping a the 4:53 mark.

The Caps did not convert on the extra chance, but the Caps took the lead shortly after the power play expired, Garnet Hathaway getting his second goal of the evening.  Taking a pass from Dmitry Orlov from the top of the left wing circle, Hathaway had a clear shooting lane and snapped a shot from the right wing hash mark over the glove of Rask at 7:04 to give the Caps their first lead of the evening, 3-2.

Boston tied the game late, Taylor Hall whacking a loose puck just off Anderson’s left pad at the edge of the crease to make it a 3-3 game.  It would be the last scoring in regulation as, for the second time in this series, the teams went to…


Boston made sho9rt work of overtime, scoring the game winner 39 seconds into the extra frame, Brad Marchand taking advantage of a failed Washington clear out of its end to take a cross-ice pass from Matt Grzelcyk and one-timing it past Anderson on the short side to even the series at a game apiece.

Other stuff…

-- Garnet Hathaway’s first period goal was his first career playoff goal and first career playoff point in his 16th career playoff game.  When he scored later in the contest, it was his first two-goal game of the season and second as a Capital, regular season and playoffs (December 3, 2019, in a 5-2 win over San Jose).

-- This was the 11th consecutive time that a Washington-Boston playoff game was decided by a single goal, dating back to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal on May 3, 1998.  This was the seventh of those games to go to overtime, the Caps holding a 4-3 record in those extra game contests and 7-4 overall in the 11 one-goal games.

-- Boston outshot the Caps, 48-39, and out-attempted them, 89-63.

-- Anthony Mantha led the Caps with seven shots on goal and tied Alex Ovechkin with eight shot attempts.

-- Boston enjoyed a 41-24 edge in faceoff wins; no Capital finished over 50 percent for the game.

-- Dmitry Orlov had a pair of assists, his second career two-assist game in the postseason (April 21, 2018, in a 4-3 Game 5 win over Columbus in the Eastern Conference first round.

-- Lars Eller did not return after going out with an injury mid-way through the second period.

-- John Carlson led the team with 24:52 in ice time; Daniel Sprong was at the other end with 8:48.

-- The Caps were credited with 36 hits to 30 for Boston, Tom Wilson leading the team with six.

-- Nick Jensen led the team with three blocked shots and added four hits for good measure.

In the end…

An opportunity lost.  Holding a lead with under three minutes in regulation, the Caps played a bit too passive for their own good on defense.  But as we constantly remind folks, it is “best to four,” not “best to one.”  But now the series goes to Boston, where the Caps have won six of their last seven playoff games, five of them in extra time.  They will now have to add to that total to reclaim the home ice advantage.