Alexander Ovechkin’s Capitals have never managed to make it past the second round of the NHL playoffs. Sidney Crosby is largely to blame.
The playoff futility of the Ovechkin-era Capitals has reached almost comic proportions as the team has made it nearly an annual tradition to squander a great regular season with a first- or second-round exit each April. And the Penguins are the team that’s most responsible for that history of failure: In their nine playoff appearances from 2008 to 2017, Ovechkin’s Capitals have been eliminated in the second round by the Penguins on three occasions. And each time, Crosby’s Penguins have gone on to lift the Stanley Cup — including both of the last two years.
Another second-round series between the two teams kicked off on Thursday night, and if the result of that game is any indication, the Capitals might be looking at more of the same. Despite scoring just 17 seconds into the first period, holding that 1-0 lead for more than two periods, and then taking a 2-0 lead 28 seconds into the third period on a snipe from — you guessed it — Ovechkin, the Capitals managed to, somehow, lose to the Penguins. It feels like déjà vu all over again for the Capitals and their tortured fanbase.
But regardless of how this series ends, it’s a safe bet that it will be competitive. Despite their inability to progress to the conference finals or beyond, Ovechkin’s Capitals have played a lot of playoff hockey — in the 16 series they’ve been involved in since 2008,1 they’ve played 103 games, or 92 percent of the maximum number of games they could have played had all 16 series gone to a seventh game.
Perhaps it’s because the Caps are just 3-7 in game sevens during his tenure, but there’s a misconception that Ovechkin has been subpar in the postseason, which has clouded his legacy as one of the two or three best left wingers in league history. The 32-year-old Ovechkin has never missed a playoff game his Capitals have been involved in, and he’s averaged more than half a minute more ice time in the playoffs than he gets in the regular season. He earns slightly fewer points per game in the playoffs than the regular season — .95 versus 1.12 — but so do Crosby and Patrick Kane, and you won’t see anybody questioning their legacies. And for what it’s worth, Ovechkin has outperformed Crosby when they’ve met in the playoffs — 28 points to 24 over the course of four head-to-head series.2
You’d think a guy who’s won seven Rocket Richard trophies as the league’s top goal scorer (the most ever since the award was first handed out in 19993), three Hart Memorial trophies as the league’s MVP (one more than Crosby, mind you), and who this season became just the 20th member of the 600-goal club might command a little more respect. But the Ovechkin narrative — however unjust — revolves around playoff failures.
To be fair, those failures are manifold. They’re also amplified by their contrast with Ovechkin’s regular-season dominance. From 1987 to 2018, Ovechkin has earned more point shares than any other player through their age-32 season. Among the top 50, only four players 32 and under failed to claim even a single conference finals berth: Teemu Selanne, Brett Hull, Ovechkin’s teammate and power play provider Nicklas Backstrom, and Ziggy Palffy.
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But some of these players had more shots at glory after their age-32 season. Things didn’t end up working out for Palffy (and they obviously haven’t worked out yet for Backstrom), but Selanne and Hull remained productive in their mid-to-late 30s. Each man was blessed with longevity and an ability to mostly escape calamitous injury, and each finished his career having hoisted at least one Stanley Cup. Hull was 34 when he finally got the job done (in dramatic fashion), while Selanne was 36.
Who knows exactly how much longer Ovechkin’s career will last, or how much longer he’ll remain the NHL’s best goal-scorer. To this point, he’s been like Selanne and Hull, able to avoid career-jeopardizing injury while remaining one of the league’s elite forwards. It’s difficult to sustain scoring numbers like Ovechkin’s for a single NHL season, let alone well into one’s 30s. But nothing of what Ovechkin does in the future — or what he did in the past — will matter if he’s able to lead his Caps to postseason glory this spring.
So, could 2018 be different? Could this be the year the Capitals finally flip the narrative? This Capitals team is in many ways worse than those that won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2010, 2016 and 2017 (and they’re already down a game in yet another second round series). They score less relative to their competition, and they give up more shots, which means they also give up more goals. But maybe being unburdened by the weight of the expectations that come with being the league’s best regular-season team is exactly what the Capitals need. There’s a lot of hockey left to play in this series, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who will emerge victorious.
If the Capitals can exorcise their Penguin-shaped demons, there’s no telling how far they can go in these playoffs. And even if they crash out in the conference finals, at least Ovechkin will get to wash off some of the stink that has followed him in his otherwise brilliant career.