PITTSBURGH — Thanks to their come-from-behind win on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals find themselves up 2-1 in their second-round series against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Penguins. It is worth keeping in mind that their only loss in this series so far — Game 1 — was a game where they mostly carried the play and only lost because of a five-minute meltdown in the third period that saw the Penguins score three consecutive goals. They are that close to being up 3-0 in the series, and outside of that five-minute stretch have been hands down the better team.
Their penalty kill has shut down the Penguins’ high powered play, and they have had the overall edge in the special teams battle.
They are feasting on the Penguins’ aggressiveness and getting what seems to be countless odd-man rushes.
Then there is Alex Ovechkin. Oh, man, is he playing great right now.
On Tuesday, he scored what is already his eighth goal of the playoffs, putting him in a three-way tie with Penguins forwards Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel for the league lead in these playoffs. It was his fourth consecutive game with a goal and the fifth in the past six games.
This one was especially big because it broke a 3-3 tie with just over a minute to play in regulation, finishing an odd-man rush with Nicklas Backstrom that saw him knock a rebound off the post out of mid-air to put the Capitals back in front.
He did not end up as a finalist in the Hart Trophy voting this season as league MVP, but he did make my ballot in the top-five for his impact on the Capitals. He not only led the league in goal-scoring for the seventh time in his career (and the fifth time in the past six years), but the Capitals were a completely different team when he was on the ice versus when he was off of it. After losing several players from last year’s Presidents’ Trophy team without really having the salary cap flexibility to replace them, the Capitals obviously took a bit of a step backwards. At times they did not look as good as their record might have indicated, but they were still good enough to win the Metropolitan Division again. A lot of that was because of the way Ovechkin bounced back from what was a “down” year (by his standards).
During 5-on-5 play during the regular season the Capitals outscored teams by a 67-54 margin with Ovechkin on the ice (plus-13) and attempted 51 percent of the total shot attempts. Without him on the ice, they were only a plus-four in the goal department (101-97) and attempted just a paltry 46 percent of the total shot attempts. Forty-six percent is the level lottery teams — bad ones — play at. It was basically a tale of two different teams all season — the Ovechkin team, and the non-Ovechkin team.
That same storyline has continued over into the playoffs.
Through the Capitals’ first nine playoff games with Ovechkin on the ice at 5-on-5 the Capitals own a 9-6 goal advantage and are attempting more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts. Without him, they are being outscored in those same situations by a 10-11 margin and have attempted just 47 percent of the total shot attempts. If anything, the gap between the Capitals with Ovechkin and the Capitals without him has grown in the playoffs.
The thing about Ovechkin and the playoffs is that he has always produced in these situations. There has never been a postseason series in his career where he has failed to score at least one goal. After Tuesday, he is now up to 54 goals and 103 total points in 106 career playoff games.
As I pointed out after the Capital’s first-round win against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he is second among all active players (minimum 40 playoff games played) in postseason goals per game, trailing only Nikita Kucherov, and fifth in points per game, trailing only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, and Kucherov.
But because there has always been one reason another for the Capitals being unable to advance beyond the second round, the lack of a championship is always the elephant in the room when it comes to Ovechkin and his legacy.
Sometimes it has been because the Capitals’ goalie — whoever it may have been in past playoff runs, from Jose Theodore, to Semyon Varlamov, to even Braden Holtby in the past two Pittsburgh series’ — forgetting how to stop the puck. Sometimes it has been because the other team’s goalie refuses to give up anything. Sometimes in the playoffs you just fall short to a better team and there is no one really to blame. Sometimes you just lose.
But through it all Ovechkin has always been there producing.
He is doing it again this postseason and, perhaps most importantly for the Capitals, some of the other stuff is starting to go their way.
They may not be playing great when he is off the ice overall, but they are getting the superior goaltending. Some of the breaks that used to work against them in these situations are starting to fall in their favor. That is the type of stuff a team needs to win in the playoffs. It is not just great players playing great. Every winning team needs some breaks. The fact some of it is starting to go the Capitals’ way has to be encouraging for them.
Every year until they actually get over the hurdle we are going to wonder if this year is finally the year. Every year we keep saying it, thinking this really will be it. This time it really is starting to feel like it could be the year. For real. At least a little bit.
(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)