What We Learned: Let Ovechkin be Ovechkin

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The second you’re down 2-0, you need to start putting Ovechkin over the boards more often, not less. . (Getty)
The second you’re down 2-0, you need to start putting Ovechkin over the boards more often, not less. . (Getty)

So they might blow it now.

Just a few days after they led 2-0 in the series and were heading home, and it looked for all the world like the Capitals were going to roll Tampa, a team any observer had every right to feel was vastly superior.

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In the three games since, Tampa has proven that superiority time and again. In Game 3, Tampa got by on special teams. In Game 4, they got by because Tampa’s overwhelming talent did the kind of things overwhelming talent occasionally does to steal a game.

Then on Saturday Tampa led for all but 0.5 percent of the game’s run time, and led by at least two for more than 80 percent. And when a team like Tampa gets up two goals for 50-plus minutes it’s going to be a long road back for whoever is trying to level the score.

The problem for the Caps, as it was for the Jets in much of the Western Conference Final, is that they flat-out didn’t show up in the first period. They got outscored 2-0, yes, and then gave up the third goal on the first shift of the second period, but they also got outshot 13-4. Tampa was up three before the Caps even decided they were going to play in this one, and while they put together a pretty good run down the stretch — they out-attempted Tampa 43-17 after the third goal — they also trailed by three so it didn’t really matter.

This is how score effects work; Tampa didn’t have to try too hard to score any more goals than it already had because three is plenty in most hockey games. Let the Caps empty the arsenal down the stretch, because you have an all-world goaltender and a roster of guys Nos. 1-18 who are at least pretty good defensively. The best defense is a good offense, sure, but the second-best defense is a good defense and Tampa absolutely has that. Washington came most of the way back — it was 3-0 for less than four minutes — but at no point did it feel like the game was winnable for the Caps.

The thing is, though, it should have been.

Even if you’re adjusting for score and all that stuff, Washington has certainly outplayed Tampa in this series, but is getting smoked on special teams (Tampa has six power play goals to Washington’s three) but in Game 5 in particular, Washington’s problems proved out.

For one thing, the way Barry Trotz has been managing his best player this series is a bit confusing. Let’s talk about Alex Ovechkin’s usage in Game 5, because it’s bizarre. Ovechkin played a little more than 20 minutes in the loss, after only about 17 per in Games 1 and 2, and at least 23 in Games 3 and 4. You say, “Okay, well in the first two games they led for a pretty good chunk of both and in Washington they trailed more than they led.”

That’s fine. You give your best players a breather when you don’t need them (or in this case when you need to protect a lead and you think their defensive contributions are suspect). I’d rather have Ovechkin out there but I get the rationale even if I disagree with it. And when you’re trailing, you put those guys over the boards more often because you absolutely, positively need a goal.

So why, then, in this game in which the Caps trailed by at least two goals for like 50 minutes, do you only play him 20:16 in the entire game? And more to the point, why does 4:28 of his ice time come in the last 4:48? You mean to tell me that Trotz couldn’t find a Devante Smith-Pelly shift to give the Ovechkin line instead?

And obviously Ovechkin didn’t have a great night, necessarily; he didn’t even put a shot on goal until about the 50th minute (though he did eventually score). And he only had one shot attempt through 40 minutes. But still, you have to let your best players play through that, right? But the Caps also didn’t draw a penalty in the entire game — which is the kind of thing that probably shouldn’t happen but that’s NHL officiating for ya — so there seems to have been a feeling that Ovechkin should have been doing something other than being Alex Ovechkin. He told reporters after the game he was trying to throw hits. Which is not what his job should ever be. I could’ve sworn that’s the whole reason Tom Wilson is on that line.

Some of that, you can say, is down to how well the Tampa fourth line has done in bottling Ovechkin up. He had the garbage-time goal in Game 5 but still has been outscored 3-2 when Ryan Callahan is on the ice. Against everyone else, it’s 2-1 for Ovechkin.

But at the same time, Ovechkin attempted a combined 31 shots in Games 3 and 4 and didn’t score on it. Doesn’t seem like there are too many 31-attempt stretches in which Ovechkin would not score at least a single goal. So again, why is Trotz not putting this guy — who rightly or wrongly is going to bear all the slings and arrows if (when?) the Caps lose this series — in a position to succeed when he gets the chance?

Even in Game 4, when the Caps were trying to come back and had that fearsome 6-on-5 working in the final minutes, the way the players were positioned on the ice was baffling. Ovechkin at the center of the point, TJ Oshie in the “Ovechkin spot,” John Carlson below Oshie near the dot. That oddity wasn’t just a random thing, either, because it was the same arrangement on the lengthy 6-on-5 on Saturday. I don’t know how you brain-genius your way into moving Ovechkin away from the part of the ice that colloquially bears his name, in an effort to get a defenseman closer to the net, but here we are. Carlson fanned on a cross-ice attempt in Game 4, took too long to corral a shot that Andrei Vasilevskiy easily stopped in Game 5. Does Oshie or Ovechkin make the same mistakes? Hmm.

Ovechkin of course needs to be better than “one shot attempt in the first two periods.” But he also only played 11:16 in those first 40 minutes, and it’s like, what is Trotz saving him for? Again, no power plays, but you gotta let your horses run, man. What’s the concern, that you’d go down 4-0 instead of 3-0? Who cares.

This absolutely goes back to hockey’s predisposition toward believing not-allowing goals is more valuable than scoring them. The second you’re down 2-0, you need to start putting Ovechkin over the boards more often, not less. Unless there’s something the Caps aren’t telling us — and it appears as though Ovechkin didn’t really miss a shift the entire game, they were just more spaced out than usual — there’s no excuse for this.

And no, it’s not why the Capitals lost, but it does highlight why their comeback attempt wasn’t a bit more effective. When Chandler Stephenson plays as much in the first two periods than the guy who won the Rocket Richard this year, that’s a deployment mistake, full stop.

What We Learned: Playoff edition

Tampa Bay Lightning: You can say what you want about Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz and what they get paid, especially at their respective ages, but if those are your 11th- and 12th-best forwards you’re probably in pretty good shape. Obviously you don’t expect them to outscore Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov head-to-head over any appreciably long period of time, but this is five games and they’ve mostly played them to a stalemate, which is all you can ever ask of guys like this. Obviously they’ve gotten help from the Stralman pairing behind them for most of the series but still, Kunitz and Callahan are both at 50 percent in goals (2-2 and 4-4, respectively) in on-ice goals for this series despite playing more against Ovechkin than any other opponents in this postseason. Pretty incredible.

Vegas Golden Knights: I, of course, thought Vegas was an elite team even before the expansion draft. Anyone who tries to produce evidence to the contrary is Doing Fake News. But as if we needed further proof that this is a universe beyond understanding, “Ryan Reaves from Luca Sbisa” is the goal that puts a first-year expansion team through to a Cup Final. Yup, definitely makes a ton of sense and for sure validates everything that happened around this team all year long. This is absolutely in no way a product of Marc-Andre Fleury playing the absolute best hockey of his life for five months straight. Nah. This team just Tries Harder than everyone else. More on this subject tomorrow.

Washington Capitals: I mean, if you were scripting a way for the Caps to blow the biggest series of their modern era, how else would you do it than this? They went up 2-0 with two wins on the road against the best team in the Eastern Conference this year. They looked pretty damn good doing it. Even in Game 3, they lost but they looked like the better team. And now they’ve lost three straight and are returning to home ice where, hell, I dunno, they’re probably gonna lose, right? Even getting to Game 7 would feel like a huge accomplishment at this point. Wouldn’t even matter what happened there. Lose 15-0. Whatever, you clawed back that one win when everyone gave up on you. And if you win? Well, losing to Vegas in the Cup Final would be an extremely funny way to go out.

Winnipeg Jets: You figured the Jets would come out and empty the tank, right? But nope, just eight shots on goal in the third period of a home elimination game they trailed by one. And that isn’t gonna get it done. And sure, seven scoring chances, but only three were high-danger and Vegas had twice as many as that. Marc-Andre Fleury was the difference once again but also you gotta give yourself the best possible chance to succeed and, well, they didn’t. Hockey’s dumb, what can I tell ya.

Play of the Weekend

A very normal regular goal from two guys you all expected to be in on the big W.

Gold Star Award

Pretty crazy that Marian Hossa is not-officially retired for the second year in a row. Totally impossible to see this turn of events coming.

Minus of the Weekend

The Alex Ovechkin “chicken parm” at whatever restaurant that is? It’s not a chicken parm. They don’t put a pound and a half of mushrooms on a chicken parm, or have the chicken on the side. I will go to my grave attacking this vile pasta entree!!!

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “HailMcJesus” might be an Oilers fan.

To Ottawa:

Oscar Klefbom, Jesse Puljujarvi, 2018 1st, 2nd, 3rd (All from Edmonton)

To Toronto:

Jean-Gabriel Pageau

To Edmonton:

Erik Karlsson (Verbal Agreement to Re-Sign) , Kasperi Kapanen


Yes I should be go…… good lord what is happening in there?

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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