The amount of theories behind the Washington Capitals’ underachievement are only eclipsed by the amount of theories surrounding the decline in Alex Ovechkin’s production over the last few seasons.
Everybody has one. No one knows for certain. But in both cases, their woes track back to a specific playoff series in 2010.
The Montreal Canadiens were the No. 8 seed, and rallied from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Capitals in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The Caps scored three goals in the three consecutive losses; as Japers’ Rink theorizes, that’s the series that led to the eventual turn towards defensive hockey under then-coach Bruce Boudreau.
It was also the series where Ovechkin was suffocated for the first time in his NHL career, at least in the Capitals’ losses: 1 goal, 1 assist and nothing on the power play against the Habs in those four games.
Or, more to the point, against a Habs team with Kirk Muller as an assistant coach.
“We really took [Capitals star forward Alex] Ovechkin away the whole power play," said Muller back in the 2010 playoffs. "We played man on man with him and forced the other four guys to beat us four-on-three.”
Muller’s Canadiens wrote the playbook against Ovechkin in that series: Taking away his space, and understanding he had a limited toolbox of moves from which to draw. As Hal Gill, who played for Montreal in that series, said: “(Ovechkin)'s very different from [Sidney Crosby] in that respect. Sid has so many moves. He's resourceful."
Again, there’s a great number of theories as to why Alex Ovechkin is no longer ALEX OVECHKIN. But know this: Ever since that playoff series against Montreal, Kirk Muller has owned him.
Muller was an assistant for another season in Montreal before leaving for the AHL Milwaukee Admirals in June 2011. On Nov. 28, 2011, he was hired by the Carolina Hurricanes as head coach, replacing Paul Maurice.
In the Montreal playoff series in 2010, Ovechkin had 10 points in seven games, including five goals. But he had only one point – a goal – on the power play.
Did Muller and Co. figure him out? You be the judge. Here is Alex Ovechkin against Kirk Muller teams since April 2010:
So in nine games against Muller since the Montreal series, Ovechkin has a 0.44 points per game average, which is about half his average from 2011-13. And while his power-play production has dipped significantly since 2010, the fact is that Ovechkin has one power play point in his last 18 games against Muller teams.
On Tuesday night, the Hurricanes defeated the Capitals, 4-0. Ovechkin was held without a shot, just as he was in Carolina’s previous game against the Capitals, which Washington won 3-0 on Feb. 26. Take away a 5-shot performance by Ovechkin last season, and he hasn’t managed more than two shots against the Hurricanes since Muller arrived.
There are other factors at play here beyond coaching. The Canadiens had shutdown players like Gill menacing Ovechkin. Tim Gleason of the Hurricanes as also long tormented the Capitals captain. Then there are Ovechkin’s own declining numbers, contributing to the trend.
Muller’s Hurricanes are 3-2-1 against the Capitals since he took over last season, heading into Thursday’s game back in Raleigh. Much of that success is thanks to his team’s ability to cut the heart out of Washington’s attack, just like Muller’s Canadiens were able to do back in 2010.
It’s tough to figure out who Ovechkin’s biggest enemy is these days, beyond perhaps the expectations that haunt him. Kirk Muller, however, might be a worthy candidate.
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