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Ovechkin yet to prove playoff mettle
Alex Ovechkin’s best position isn’t always on the wing or the point.
While the Washington Capitals forward is arguably the most explosive player left in the playoffs, his team's most advantageous location for him could be on the bench — a place Ovechkin could again find himself affixed if his team pulls to a lead against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden in a decisive Game 7 on Wednesday night.
“My role is still to score goals,” Ovechkin said at the team’s training facility on Tuesday. “Sometimes in different situations, you put in different guys out there. We win, we win. We lose, we lose. I think everybody wants to support each other no matter what.
"Of course, sometimes, you get angry because you didn’t play the last minutes (of a game). But, if it’s good for the team, you have to eat it.”
Ovechkin played all of a minute, 58 seconds in the third period of Game 4 last Thursday as the Caps clung to a one-goal lead against the defending Stanley Cup champs. The Caps won that game, which coincidentally came without any contributions from Ovechkin in the goal department.
“He understands now why he isn’t in there sometimes,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It’s all about who is the best in certain situations. It’s not a shock to me. It’s not a shock to anybody. It’s pretty simple. Your best players are your best players, but not in each situation.”
The sparse use of Ovechkin in close games aside, he hasn’t led to the Caps past the second round since he arrived as a rookie in the 2005-06 season. The Caps are 11-11 in playoff games when Ovechkin scores and have dropped their last four contests when their superstar captain tallies a goal, including losses in Games 3 and 6 of this first-round Eastern Conference series against Boston.
The Caps are 1-3 in the four Game 7s Ovechkin has played in. He has two goals in those four games, split between finales against the Philadelphia Flyers (first round in 2008) and Pittsburgh Penguins (second round in 2009) — both losses. Ovechkin didn’t have a point in the Caps' first-round clincher against the New York Rangers in 2009.
“A lot of people think he’s super human,” veteran Caps forward Joel Ward said. “It’s not a video game. He can’t go out there and do whatever he wants. He’s working hard. He’s trying. He’s battling. He’s hitting. It’s just a matter of sticking to the game plan and he’ll get the bounces.”
Maybe it’s the game plan the Bruins have figured out. Ovechkin is a pure shooter. While he is quick and a decent puck handler, he’s not known for creating his own shots. He needs open space, something that is even harder to come by in the postseason when coaches, and players like former Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara, keep closer tabs on him.
“Ovi is a big part of our team, just like Chara is a big part of their (the Bruins) team,” Caps coach Dale Hunter said. “Still, you need the whole team when it comes down to a game like this. You need the four lines, six D and the goalie all going. He’s got to battle against Chara every shift.”
Ovechkin is getting his shots, 26 though the first six games. That’s a higher clip than during the regular season, although his shooting percentage has dipped to 7.7 percent in the playoffs from 12.5 percent in the regular season.
Power forwards like Ovechkin tend to burn bright then fade quickly as they reach 30. At only 26, Ovechkin has seen a dip each season from a career-high in points in 2007-08 when he paced the league with 112. Ovechkin finished with 65 points this season, although his 38 goals were six better than 2010-11.
“I think he’s been searching for consistency over the last few years,” said former Caps coach and current NHL Network analyst Gary Green. “Things came easier to him when he entered the league initially. He’s big, strong and powerful. He’s a great skater with a high skill level. Some of (the lack of production) has been because he hasn’t had the same army around him.”
Nicklas Backstrom, who centers the Capitals' No. 1 line alongside Ovechkin, missed 40 games because of concussion-like symptoms and was banned for another game earlier in the series for a match penalty he drew at the end of Game 4. Defenseman Mike Green, a cog on the Caps’ power play, missed 50 games with various injuries in the regular season and has yet to return to form.
“Alex takes so much on himself and tries to do too much,” Green said. “Also, he’s so powerful when he’s out there on the ice, it takes a toll.”
Ovechkin remains the team’s top scorer in the playoffs with five points (two goals, three assists). But it’s shame that his defensive game hasn’t evolved over the years, making it a much more difficult decision for the defensive-minded Hunter to sit Ovechkin.
It sounds like Ovechkin at least has a more responsible game plan in mind.
“Before the game, you’re thinking about it all the time ... what you have to do better,” Ovechkin said. “What you have to do to if you have a chance to block (a shot). When you get on the ice, the game is so quick, you don’t have a time to think about this stuff.”
Maybe at some point, it will be second nature for Ovechkin and he won’t have to think about blocking shots, clogging the passing lane or back checking. It’ll be just as much a part of his game as that heavy slap shot.
Until then, the Caps are sometimes a better team without him on the ice.