The Capitals and Alex Ovechkin are hapless losers, but don’t call them chokers (maybe)
Alex Ovechkin didn’t trip on his shoelaces. He didn’t whiff on shots or pull a McNabb on the blue line. His Washington Capitals didn’t get embarrassed or booed off the ice (though the former might have been deserved) at the end of Wednesday’s inevitable Game 7 home loss to the perennial Caps-killing Pittsburgh Penguins.
Maybe they did choke under the weight of three decades of postseason failure. Or maybe the story behind the latest and greatest playoff collapse for the NHL’s most underachieving franchise was far less grandiose: shoddy goaltending and how-did-that-miss offensive opportunities, including Ovechkin’s own sweet-spot slap shot that was destined for the back of the net until it somehow got deflected by the shaft of Marc-André Fleury’s stick.
No matter. Reasons and rationality are irrelevant in a time like this. The Caps choked. Ovi isn’t clutch. Blow ’em up.
In zero-sum games, that’s the easy and obvious reaction. Forget that with a few different bounces of the puck, the Washington Capitals advance to the Eastern Conference Finals and are favored to win the Stanley Cup. The Ovechkin referendum and talk of blowing up the team become a distant memory. They’ve gotten over the hump and all the misery is behind them.
Except that it’s not and now the franchise and its Hall of Famer player are in crisis, all because they got outscored in the final 32 minutes of its season. Just like that. Less than 24 hours ago, the sky was the limit for the Washington Capitals. Now, the limit has been firmly established as the Eastern Conference Semifinals and it might take a complete teardown to move the line.
It’s certainly possible, even plausible, the Caps choked it away like they have so many times before – collapsing under the weight of the ghosts of the Easter Epic, Pittsburgh blowouts and the dozen other bad playoff losses. It’s not like we’d ever know. You can’t blindly assign labels based on results, not when those results can be so arbitrary. Win and the Caps conquered decades of turmoil. Lose and it’s a total collapse. No in between. No room for nuance.
The “choke” or “clutch” idea exists merely as confirmation bias, added after the fact. They lost, so they choked. But did they? Just because the final score read 2-0, we don’t know their muscles were tight or that they overthought every scoring opportunity. Are you sure the pressure affected how they set up the power play or if Braden Holtby’s rough night was due to nerves instead of simply having an ill-timed off night?
What is a choke? Nerves failing you at the biggest moment. What is clutch? Coming through in that moment. Both are nebulous, indefinable concepts that no number can capture or declare. There’s no stat that reveals an athlete’s ability to come through when the situation is the toughest. They’re both feelings that lead to actions. A clutch athlete lives for the pressure situation and revels in the excitement around it. They excel when the only other option is defeat – think Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, David Ortiz and Serena Williams.
Of course, there’s no way to know for sure. Maybe those athletes are puddles of nerves in the big moments and somehow they come through anyway. They’re certainly talented enough to compensate for it. Maybe, but I doubt it. When Tiger hit that putt on No. 18 in the 2008 U.S. Open, NBC’s Dan Hicks shouted “expect anything different?” and no one did. When Brady led the Patriots on a game-winning touchdown on the first drive of overtime in the Super Bowl, it felt predestined. When Serena is down a set and a break and all looks lost, that’s when she seems to play her best.
But because being clutch is still subject to the percentages and expected failures in sports, there’s no legitimate way to definitively place such a label on an athlete. Even if Ortiz was the most clutch player in baseball history, he’d still get out half the time in big spots. Brady lost two Super Bowls in the final minutes. Serena has dropped two of her last four Grand Slam finals. And Tiger is showing that clutch can only go so far; without the talent to back it up it’s a worthless trait.
Then there’s the flip side. Those deemed chokers can still succeed too. You can drill a birdie putt on the 18th hole of the Masters. (It’s how Phil Mickelson won his first major.) There are still Super Bowls to win even if your performances in the biggest games aren’t up to your usual standards. (Peyton Manning has two rings.) The Stanley Cup is attainable even if you do your best to give it away (about halfway through Game 7, the Caps and Penguins were tied – it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where one of the Caps shots got past Fleury and today we’re talking about Ovechkin being close to cementing his legacy). You can overcome shaky nerves and fail with steely ones.
None of these things are mutually exclusive. In sports, where series, careers and reputations can hinge on missing a pitch by a half-inch, being slightly out of position on a power-play pass or letting one stray thought creep into your mind when the ball is in the air for a serve, the little things can be the difference between turning the Washington Capitals from a Stanley Cup favorite to a team many agree is in need of a complete demolition in a matter of two-and-a-half hours.
Ovechkin isn’t deserving of all the blame but shouldn’t be absolved of it either. Okay, he averages more points both in elimination games and in the playoffs against the Penguins than he does in the regular season. Great. I can play numbers too. Ovechkin’s teams have a playoff winning percentage that’s vastly worse than their regular-season winning percentage. Here’s another: No player with as many MVP awards has ever failed to win a Stanley Cup. And not only has Ovi failed to hoist the Cup, he hasn’t even come within eight wins of it, as his Caps have never advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Which one matters more?
So call him what you want. Superstar. Choker. MVP. Disappointment. Victim of circumstance. There’s only one title that matters for Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals: Playoff losers, yet again.