When Alex Ovechkin “guaranteed” that the Washington Capitals would win Game 7 on Wednesday night against the New York Rangers, you could actually hear the collective knuckle-cracking from the hockey punditry, because the playoff guarantee is one of the most insipidly lazy narratives in all of sports.
“Nobody said it was going to easy. It’s going to be a Game 7. So we have to regroup and win there,” he said after their Game 6 loss on Sunday, never actually guaranteeing anything, but whatever.
“We’re going to come back and win the series,” he said, which was odd, since the Capitals have never trailed in this series.
More to the point, what is Ovechkin supposed to say there? During another part of his postgame chat, he said “we’re going to do our best”; which while technically true, probably would have left some New York tabloid opting to call him “humbled” rather than “cocky.”
"I have a lot more respect for someone who will be bold enough to say, 'I'm the leader of the hockey team. We're going to go there and give our best game and we're going to win the hockey game,'" said his coach, Barry Trotz.
So Ovechkin does as captains are supposed to do, but for which he’ll never be credited because he’s Ovechkin, which is to build a lightning rod for himself while at the same time exhibiting an unwavering confidence that This Time It Will Be Different.
There’s evidence to that fact from the previous round, when the Capitals closed out the New York Islanders in Game 7 on home ice, which is a Haley’s Comet-level of rare event. Of course, that was an empty husk of an Islanders blue line they pummeled, controlling the game as they’ve not controlled many this season.
Despite their defense being healthy and improving as the series has gone deeper, Ovechkin believes the same formula can hold against the Rangers: “We have to play that way. You can see they don’t want to play that game. We knew that. As soon as we put the puck deep and hit their D they fade because we’re big and strong. You see how we score goals. We put bodies in front of Lundqvist and it goes in.”
Of course, the counterevidence to this not being the “same old Caps” is that there was even a Game 7 in the previous round. They lost Game 6 at Nassau to the Islanders. They lose a lot of Game 6s. If the Rangers complete the rally on Wednesday, this will be an NHL-record fifth time the Capitals have blown a 3-1 lead in a series.
This will be the ninth Game 7 for Alex Ovechkin. He’s now won three of eight, although with varying degrees of participation:
Vs. Flyers (2008)
Vs. Rangers (2009 – W)
Vs. Penguins (2009)
Vs. Canadiens (2010)
At Bruins (2012 - W)
At Rangers (2012)
Vs. Rangers (2013)
Vs. Islanders (2015 - W)
Two goals in eight Game 7s isn’t a good look for anyone, but especially not for the greatest goal-scorer of his generation (and it’s not even close).
Dissertations will be written about Ovechkin’s lack of success in Game 7s, and hopefully some of them go beyond the “he’s a choker!” and “he doesn’t want it, whatever it is!” tropes that lazily malign him.
Here, let me get you started, future Ovechkin scholars: The Capitals thrive on the power play. Ovechkin uses the power play as an offensive catalyst for the rest of his game. Power plays in Game 7s are a thing that don’t always happen; hell, the Capitals just played one in which they didn’t have a single minute of power play time.
Ovechkin’s Game 7 power-play points? One, an assist, scored in 2008.
Another thing: Ovechkin is a great player. He’s at his best when the power play is churning and when Nicklas Backstrom is also at his best. Which, in Game 7s, he never is: For all the talk about Ovechkin choking when it’s all on the line, Backstrom has one goal and one assist in eight Game 7s.
Mike Green? One assist in eight Game 7s, playing to a minus-5. Troy Brouwer? Zero points, five Game 7s. And so on.
Look, I hesitate to put too much of the focus on Ovechkin, because these failures have been total team efforts; and I hesitate to place too much blame on him because that fire doesn’t need another log. It’s the reason I’ve sorta been pulling for the Caps in this postseason: The playoff choking trope is something they wear too well, and something that continually prevents some from truly measuring Ovechkin’s greatness. I’m frankly exhausted by it, although comparing that exhaustion to that of Capitals fans is like comparing someone that just ran a half-marathon with someone who just ran around the circumference of the Earth.
I want to look back on Ovechkin’s career and discuss it in terms of Jagr, Hull and Richard. The longer this postseason disappointment goes on, the better the chances we’re instead looking at the next Mike Gartner.
I want to find the sweet spot, if it exists, between refusing to blame Ovechkin for his team’s playoff failures and acknowledging that one assist and six shots on goal in his last four Game 7s is atrocious for a premiere offensive player, a team catalyst and a multiple MVP winner.
So here’s what I want out of Ovechkin: I want him to follow through on the actual guarantee he made in this series.
It was back in Game 1, after Ovechkin scored a fantastic goal against Henrik Lundqvist. Mics picked up the Capitals star chirping the Rangers goalie, saying “ALL SERIES, BABY, ALL SERIES!”
It hasn’t been all series. He hasn’t registered a point since Game 2.
“We knew we have to step up. We knew we have to play better,” said Ovechkin after Game 6.
“We have our chances.”
So do the Capitals. Again and again and again and again and again and you get the point.
I won’t blame Ovechkin if they lose. It’s a team game. But just once in one of these finales, just once while he stares into the abyss of another championship tournament disappointment, I want to be able to look back at a Game 7 and be confident that Alex Ovechkin played a dominant game, doing everything to elevate his team even if it ultimately falls short.
Or, against all odds, to be able to look back at the Game 7 that Alex Ovechkin willed his team to win.
Hey, it can happen. Nothing in this sport is guaranteed.
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