Alexander Ovechkin is many things. He’s the winner of three league MVPs. He’s the owner of seven Rocket Richard trophies for most goals scored in a season. And he’s among the the most prolific scorers in NHL history, at 19th in all-time goals. But he’s not, despite what a lot of folks seem to believe, a playoff choker.
In terms of the most basic metric — point production — Ovechkin has been a beast: In his 120 career playoff games, he has scored 116 points. If any other skater on Earth put up those kinds of springtime numbers, pundits and hockey nerds alike would be calling him one of the best players in the history of the NHL playoffs.1 But because Ovechkin hasn’t yet lifted hockey’s heaviest silverware, a yoke of shame has been hung around his neck by those same critics.
What seems to be conveniently omitted from the “Ovechkin is a playoff choker” narrative is that during each Capitals playoff appearance, there are 19 other guys in the locker room who also must play well to restore some respectability to Washington. It’s true that Ovechkin hasn’t been brilliant in every playoff series he’s played, but aside from some exceptional playoff performances from goalie Braden Holtby,2 the Capitals captain hasn’t gotten a ton of help.
But that has changed in these playoffs. Ovechkin is having a great postseason — and so are his teammates. By no coincidence, the Capitals are one win away from ending the Vegas Golden Knights’ storybook run and claiming their first Stanley Cup in 43 long seasons3 of hockey inside the Beltway.
To measure this, we looked at every Washington playoff appearance during Ovechkin’s career and — using minutes, goals, assists and plus/minus for skaters, along with shots faced and goals allowed for goalies — we approximated goals versus threshold (GVT) statistics4 for both Ovechkin and his teammates. We then prorated the numbers to seven team games (the length of a full series) to put things on equal footing between seasons. As you can see, this is easily the most support Ovechkin has gotten from his fellow Capitals in any postseason:
|Other Capitals GVT|
In terms of GVT, Ovechkin’s best individual playoff performance came in 2009, but it happened to coincide with a historic postseason performance by Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who eliminated the Caps in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Malkin’s 36 points for the Penguins during those playoffs were the most scored in a single postseason since the NHL lockout of 2004-05 (and the seventh-most ever). Ovechkin was again excellent during the following playoffs — in fact, so were the rest of the Capitals — but Montreal’s duo of Jaroslav Halak between the pipes and Mike Cammalleri up front were too much for Washington to overcome.
The wheels began to fall off a bit for the Capitals from 2011 to 2013.5 Though they managed to advance to the second round on two occasions, they did so playing poorly relative to other playoff appearances of the past decade. This is also probably the stretch most responsible for the false narrative that Ovechkin is a poor playoff performer: Two of his four worst playoff performances in GVT came in this period. But his teammates’ numbers were also among the lowest of his career during that span.
With few exceptions, truly great performances from the Capitals as a group and from their star winger as an individual never seemed to dovetail — until now.
Washington currently has four skaters with 20 or more points — Evgeny Kuznetsov has 31 — and the Caps have given up the second-fewest shots per game over the course of the playoffs.6 Holtby has been just above average by his standards for much of Washington’s run, but he has been otherworldly when it has counted most: He stopped 167 of the 177 shots he faced in the past six games, and he pitched shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning en route to Washington’s first Prince of Wales Trophy win in 20 years.
Ovechkin has always shown up for the playoffs. This spring, his teammates decided to join him. And if the Capitals win Thursday, they’ll help their franchise’s greatest player silence all the haters and mark his place in history as a champion.