For more than a decade, Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals have epitomized failure in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, becoming one of the laughingstocks of professional sports. The term “choke” has become synonymous with the franchise and while players and coaches have come and gone, Ovechkin still remains, forced to take the brunt of the questions from both fans and media alike.
Now 32-years-old, the Capitals captain is quickly approaching the twilight of his career and, with each passing season, the comparisons to Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby continue to dwindle, while the doubt of whether the Russian native will ever bring the franchise it’s first-ever Stanley Cup increases. The last two regular seasons brought hope to the Washington D.C. area. After a successful season under new coach Barry Trotz during the 2014-15 campaign that resulted in a playoff series win, the Capitals won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies, as the team with the most points during the regular season. But the result was the same at the end of both seasons – a second round upset loss to Crosby and the Penguins. Last year’s Game 7 loss, at home, marked the ninth time in 10 seasons that Washington lost in the postseason – in seven of those series losses, the Capitals were favored to win.
The fault doesn’t lie solely on Ovechkin, of course – but he’s certainly part of the blame. Ovechkin’s regular season stats are already Hall of Fame worthy, racking up an impressive 598 goals and 509 assists in 986 career games – well over a point per game. However, when the playoffs start, he becomes a completely different player, with 90 points in 97 career postseason games. That might not seem like a big decrease but in two of the last three seasons, he’s netted over 50 goals yet has just 15 goals in the last 21 playoff games – that’s not what the Capitals should be expecting from a player of Ovechkin’s caliber. His 2009 playoff performance is what should be anticipated, though he’s never been able to mimic the 11 goals and 10 assists he scored in 21 games, en route to a loss in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
But a new year, a new Ovechkin and a new Capitals team, right? Fans of the team have said that quite a few times over the last several years, but they continue to pack Capital One Arena, selling out on almost a nightly basis, hungry for a winner and to see their beloved captain hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. And thus far this season, Ovechkin has done some really Ovechkin-like things, dazzling through the first five months. In 65 games, he’s netted 40 goals – including five game-winners – and racked up 32 assists. He’s on his way to his best statistical season in eight years but that doesn’t mean much when April rolls around.
The cast that surrounds Ovechkin is one of the best in the NHL, though, with players like T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Last season, Oshie tallied 56 points over the course of 68 games and it seems unlikely the 31-year-old will eclipse that number this year, given his 35 points in 59 games. Kuznetsov, on the other hand, has continued to prove his worth in 2017-18, averaging almost a point per game, with 64 points in 65 games. The 25-year-old has spent much of the season on a line with either Ovechkin or Oshie at the center spot, so the three all have chemistry with one another on the ice.
And while Ovechkin needs to do what he’s done his whole career – pot goals – during the postseason, much of the key to the Capitals’ potential success lies in between the goal posts. The bulk of goaltender Braden Holtby’s career has been wildly inconsistent – at times looking like a candidate for the Vezina Trophy, given to the league’s best goaltender, while other times he looks like a journeyman. In 59 career postseason performances, Holtby has proven his worth and put the team on his shoulders, mustering an impressive 2.00 goals-against-average to go along with four shutouts. Holtby could potentially be a concern heading into the postseason though, especially given his numbers this season – an unimpressive 3.00 goals-against-average and a lukewarm .908 save-percentage. While he’ll rack up the wins, he’s on pace for the worst year, statistically speaking, of his career and that’s concerning.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) March 3, 2018
This year feels a little different, though. The spotlight isn’t shining on the Capitals like in the previous two stanzas, when the franchise chased the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Washington is flying a little under the radar with 81 points in 65 games, all while splitting time atop the Metropolitan Division with both the Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers, despite hosting a Stadium Series game against the Toronto Maple Leafs last weekend at the United States Navy Academy. And, as to be expected, Ovechkin is saying all the right things and appears to have a hunger to win and prove everyone wrong.
It’s clear that the Eastern Conference is much more stacked than the Western Conference this season and that the road to the Stanley Cup will be enormously challenging for the Capitals. Given what the Tampa Bay Lightning did at the trade deadline – acquiring New York Rangers forward J.T. Miller and defenseman Ryan McDonagh – it’s tough to pick against the bolts. Ovechkin and the Capitals have the capability for a deep run, one that could potentially lead to the Cup, but once saddled with the choke label, it’s tough to get rid of it. And this season just seems doomed to be a repeat. The pressure to perform and succeed will continue to burden this team as it’s done in the past and another loss might finally lead to a dismantling of sorts because, let’s face it, Washington has tried almost everything else.