If you were looking for a reason, or even an excuse for the Washington Capitals troubles to start the season, you did not need to look any further than team Captain Alex Ovechkin.
Ovie’s struggles mirrored his teams, as Washington started the lockout shortened season 2-8-1 and were at one point, last in the Eastern Conference. The Great 8 had just seven points in the team’s first 11 games and nothing personified his struggles more than when he took two penalties in a span of just 10 seconds during a nationally televised NBC game vs. the Rangers on March 10.
Midway through the second period, as the Rangers cycled the puck in the Washington end, the Caps Ovechkin was whistled for a delayed tripping penalty. Rangers goalie Martin Biron went to the bench in favor of a sixth attacker, and before the Caps could gain possession of the puck, New York’s Brian Boyle scored his first goal of the season to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead.
But there was more, seconds after the first call had been made, the other referee on the ice raised his arm and called Ovechkin for another infraction, holding. So in addition to Boyle’s goal, the Rangers were also given the man advantage on the second Ovechkin minor. Forty-one seconds after Ovechkin was seated in the penalty box, Ryan Callahan deflected a Rick Nash shot past Holtby to make it 3-1.
Ovechkin could even be blamed for the Rangers first goal. His poor defensive play in the neutral zone on Derek Stepan led to the rush that allowed Stepan to score. The Caps would lose 4-1 and drop to 10-13-1 in the process. It has often been said that as Ovechkin goes---so do the Capitals.
Moreover, at this time of the season, neither was playing well. Each looked equally lost and out of sync in new head coach Adam Oates offensive minded system. The loss to the Rangers marked the ninth time in 13 regulation losses that the game-winning goal and/or the goal that put the opposition ahead to stay came as the result of a Washington penalty. The Caps to that point spent 87 minutes and 17 seconds killing penalties in the season, fifth most in the NHL.
NOT PLAYOFF WORTHY:
Following the game, and in part because of Ovechkin’s poor play-- many had the Capitals buried and out of the playoff mix this season. Even the diehard Red Rockers were readily willing to accept a wait until next year attitude.
Despite the poor play, Caps loyalists had every right to make excuses. They were trying to adjust to another new head coaches system. Oates represented the third new bench boss in D.C. in a span of just 17 months. It was easy to have lost count on the new systems that had been put into place.
Under Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals started playing run and gun, all offense all the time. Once they failed in the playoffs, Boudreau shifted his philosophy to a more balanced attack and then went virtually to an all-defensive style to close out the 2010-11 season.
Despite finishing a franchise best in goals against average in 2011, the Caps still failed miserably in the post season and even when they began last season with a franchise best seven straight wins, Boudreau was doomed, as he lost his locker room and more notably, Alex Ovechkin.
Gabby was fired in late November last season, as Dale Hunter entered with a tough disciplined trapping style of play. His everyone must be accountable approach proved effective at times, like during the playoff series vs. the Bruins. Nevertheless, in the end, the resistance from a team that is dominated by goal scorers and playmakers led to Hunters short stay as a head coach in the NHL. The former Caps captain went back home to London, Ontario to run his successful junior league team.
Adding insult to injury on a team that appeared to already possess a fragile psyche was they were going to have to learn new head coach Adam Oates system with only one week of training camp. The lack of time was due to a labor dispute, which caused the delayed start to the season and a 48-game schedule.
Washington was also battling injuries. The Capitals finished the season losing 158 man games due to injury and were without key players like Brooks Laich, Mike Green and Joel Ward for stretches. The goaltending was shaky. Braden Holtby, while strong at times, wasn’t exactly showing the form from last year’s playoffs---the one that got him anointed the next coming of Ken Dryden.
Michael Neuvirth, who was critical of Holtby during the lockout, could not stay healthy and looked bad when called upon. Hershey call-up Philip Grubauer was no help in his two starts. In fact both Neuvy and Grubauer combined to post a GAA well over three and a save percentage well under .900 in nine combined starts leading up to the March 10 game vs. NY.
Like the rest of his team, Ovechkin was trying to adjust to head coach’s Adam Oates system. However, he was battling demons from the whispers that he had become a coach killer and was past his prime. He looked out of sync in Oates system. Ovechkin was moved from left to right wing, and was being asked to do things he rarely did in the NHL.
We watched as the Great 8 struggled on the penalty kill. We watched as he battled behind the net for loose pucks, we watched as Ovechkin played like a rookie on many occasions, making mistakes that first and second year players make regularly.
He was a minus on most nights far more than he was in the plus column. In fact, during a five game stretch from March 9-16, Ovie was a minus-6 as the Caps were 1-4-0 during that span. This was on the heels of old head coach Dale Hunter limiting Ovechkin’s ice time last post season because he couldn’t or would not commit to playing a better two way game.
As they had done since last season, local sports talk shows discussed everything from stripping Ovie of the “C” to even exploring trade options. Many believed that Ovechkin’s time in D.C. was up. Maybe his skills had diminished, his shot from the top of the slot had become predictable and his physical play, which was once seen as a compliment to his goal scoring abilities, was now seen as reckless and out of control.
Despite his engagement to Russian tennis, star Maria Kirilenko, which many thought might settle Ovie down and the fact that long time party and line mate, Alex Semin was now in Carolina, many wondered if Ovechkin would ever grow up and mature.
Many no longer pondered if Ovechkin deserved to wear the “C”, the talk was now of what could Washington get if the price was right for Ovie in a trade as the April 3 NHL trade deadline approached. Capitals fans always looked past Ovechkin’s antics in the past. It was how Yankees fans used to look past Mickey Mantle’s party life.
Even an article in the November 2010 issue of GQ Magazine by Michael Idov (Ovechkin With Love) did little to damage his standing in the community. Like Washingtonians do when a politician is caught up in an affair, Caps fans just smiled when Ovie referred to women as calves and encouraged Idov, a married man, to cheat on his wife.
That is what happens when you score 269 goals and win three straight Most Outstanding Player awards, as selected by your peers. That is what happens when you score the most goals (372) and points (733) in the NHL since the 2005-06 season.
However, from the start of the 2012 season until the end of the 2012 season, Ovie scored just 70 goals, which was five less than he scored during the entire 07-08 season. His antics no longer were that of a young superstar who struck it rich in America. Fans were no longer looking at him as a “kid in the candy store”.
With the drop in goal scoring production on top of the Capitals miserable playoff showings—your antics are no longer tolerated.
Then your seen calling your head coach as “fat fuck”, as he did to Bruce Boudreau during the final minutes of a game vs. the Anaheim Ducks, in which Ovie was benched during the games final minute, your then selfish—immature and incapable of being a team leader.
Exit Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter and enter Adam Oates. It did not take Ovie long to realize that head coaches were no longer the common denominator in the teams failures. The number that now sat as the principal divisor in the franchises equation was 8.
He never saw eye to eye with Hunter and simply fell out of favor with Boudreau, in part because he lacked the maturity Gabby wanted Ovie to have. When Oates was hired and Ovechkin finally did speak, he took a shot at Hunters system.
When Ovechkin was asked about Oates more offensive minded system, Ovie responded, “It’s not blocking the shots and it’s not dump and chase. Any system that I play I learn a lot. I’m an offensive guy, it’s not a secret to anybody, and I’m pretty excited and very happy to hear the Caps signed that kind of guy who likes offense.”
Oates did not just turn Ovechkin loose, he required him to learn how to play the game instead of rely on his scoring instincts and skating ability. He showed him on video how teams were ready for his sprint down the left side and defended his powerful shot once he got to the high slot area.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE:
Oates also taught not just Ovechkin but the rest of the Capitals-- patience. He preached patience and if they stayed patient, like a baby learning to walk, or a six-year-old learning to ride a bike, if they did the things that you needed to do to be successful every time, it would come.
The baby eventually walks and then runs, the child rides and even starts doing tricks on that bike and the Capitals finished the season as the hottest team in the NHL.
Just as Ovechkin’s failures went hand in hand with his team, so did his success. During the month of April Ovechkin was named the NHL’s No.1 star. The Great 8 led the League with 14 goals and 22 points in 13 games as the Capitals posted an 11-1-1 record en route to their fifth Southeast Division title in the last six years.
He scored in nine of his 13 games, including four multi-goal efforts and his 12th career hat trick April 6 at Florida, and totaled eight multi-point performances. Furthermore, his 14 goals set an April record and spurred the 27-year-old Moscow native to his third Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, awarded to the League’s top goal-scorer.
Ovechkin became the first player in the trophy’s 13-year history to win the award three times. The last 13-year period in NHL history, when one player did not lead the NHL in goals at least three times was between 1937-49. He is the second Capital to lead the league in goals, joining Peter Bondra (1994-95 and shared the lead in 1997-98).
Ovechkin recorded his 30th goal of the season April 20 at Montreal, becoming the ninth player in League history to score 30 or more goals in each of his first eight seasons. His 32nd and final goal of the season came in his 600th NHL game April 25 vs. Winnipeg, giving him 371 for his career – the eighth most by any player in League history through their first 600 games.
He played in all 48 games for the Capitals this season, finishing third in the NHL with 56 points and first with 16 power-play goals and 27 power-play points. The Capitals were a different team once Ovechkin caught fire. The Capitals were 15-2-2 in their final 19-games and Ovechkin deserves to win his third Hart Trophy as League MVP. There will be arguments for Sidney Crosby of the Penguins and rightfully so but the Penguins have proved over the last two season’s that they do not need Crosby to win.
The Penguins thrived in his absence, going 8-4 without their captain while locking up the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Crosby still finished tied for third in the NHL in scoring despite missing a quarter of the season. He had 15 goals and 41 assists in 36 games.
While that makes Pittsburgh an even more dangerous team with Crosby, I’m talking about an individual award and one that should be awarded to Ovie.
For the Capitals, It all seemed to click at one time, and the Capitals have not looked back. For Caps fans, hopefully this is the new Alex Ovechkin, a more mature Ovechkin. During a recent interview with the Washington Post Ovechkin talked a little about his relationship with Dale Hunter and how Oates has psychologically found Ovechkin.
“Last couple years, I score goals, but nobody give attention to it, you know,” Ovechkin said. “Everybody look at only bad ways what I did. Everybody try to find my mistakes on the ice. But when I talk to Oatsie, and he told me good thing about what I did last year, it’s give me more energy than I used to have with ‘Hunts.’
“Yeah, it’s not a secret I don’t have that kind of relationship with last coach,” he adds. “[Oates] give me chance to show who I am on the ice. And I’m going to use it how many times ever I can. When I have the trust, I have to use the trust.”
The list of personal achievements for Ovechkin is long:
Calder Memorial Trophy -- Rookie of the Year
2 Maurice Richard Trophies -- Most Goals
Art Ross Trophy -- Most Points
2 Lester B. Pearson Trophies -- Most Outstanding Player
1 Ted Lindsey Trophy (formerly known as Lester B. Pearson)
2 Hart Memorial Trophies -- League MVP
THE QUEST FOR THE CUP CONTINUES:
The one trophy he wants above all others is not on the above list, the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin and the Capitals begin their quest for the franchises first on Thursday, when they host a familiar playoff opponent in the New York Rangers in Game 1 at Verizon Center.
This will be the third straight postseason that the Caps have faced the Blueshirts and fifth time in six seasons. Washington has won every series but last years during the Ovechkin era vs. the Rangers and if it were not for the Rangers, the Caps would hardly have any post-season success since the Great 8 arrived.
In order for Ovechkin to truly sit atop his sport, he knows what he must do once spring arrives. He has not much success so far in the playoffs. During the Ovechkin era, the Capitals are 24-27 in the playoffs, have lost four game sevens (three on home ice) and have only won three series, two coming against the Rangers.
Washington was swept out the playoffs as a No.1 seed during the second round in 2011, the first No.1 seed in NHL history to have that happen, and was the first No.1 seed to blow a 3-1 series lead vs. a No.8 seed ( Montreal) the year before.
Ovechkin is fully aware that all of this occurred on his watch and he also knows what it would mean to win the Stanley Cup and if he doesn’t---- his mother will remind him. In a documentary entitled "Alex Ovechkin: The GR8," which first aired on the NHL Network in December 2010, Ovechkin's mother made it abundantly clear that until he wins the Stanley Cup, he hasn't achieved anything.
He cannot do it alone but the good news is the guys that are considered part of the core that helped Ovechkin rebuild this franchise are also playing well at the right time. Center Nicklas Backstrom finished with 19-points in his final 14-games and Defenseman Mike Green scored nine goals and registered 18-points his final 14 games.
The Capitals are deeper than they have been at any time during his era with players such as Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer on the second line. They have a goaltender that loves the big stage of the playoffs, so is it possible for the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup?
The Capitals are listed as 16-1 underdogs to hoist the Stanley Cup in June but when you consider they had less than a three percent chance to make the playoffs in mid-March; those odds seem like nothing to overcome.
If the Capitals do hoist the Cup you can bet, the biggest reason will be the play of The Great 8.
Just as they did his team in mid-March, many counted Ovechkin out this season, including NBC hockey host Mike Milbury. The former Bruins player and Islanders GM said Ovechkin, “failed” the superstar test “miserably” with “an awful display of hockey” and “should be ashamed of himself”, during a period of play in February vs. the Flyers.
Milbury went on to say Ovechkin acted “like a baby” in trying to draw a penalty. “This is ridiculous embellishment. He should be embarrassed by this and so should his teammates. That is silly. Get up and act like a man, for god’s sake.”
Maybe Milbury had something to do with motivating Ovechkin…at least Hockey Night in Canada’s sharp dressed studio analyst and longtime hockey great Don Cherry thinks so.
“Well, here's the big thing," Cherry said. "Say what you want, if you look at his assists, [Oates] was a star himself. So a star knows what a star is going through.
"And I have to say, Mike Milbury I think deserves a lot of credit here," Cherry went on. "He's not getting it. He'd come on and he ripped Ovechkin -- he should be ashamed of himself, boom boom boom, and called him every name -- and that's when Ovechkin changed."
It doesn’t matter who takes the credit for Ovechkin’s turnaround, but one thing is for sure, Ovie is back and the Capitals are going to be a lot better for it as the Rangers come to town on Thursday. They will have their hands full as a banged up blue line tries to stop what should be the 2013 league MVP, Alex Ovechkin.
TOMORROW I BREAK AND PREVIEW THE CAPS-RANGERS SERIES COMPLETE WITH PREDICTIONS.