WASHINGTON — Oh, Alex Ovechkin is back all right. Back to leading the NHL in goals. Back to leaping into the glass in celebration. Back in the MVP debate with Sidney Crosby and other stars.
Back to answering the same old questions about the playoffs. Can he score? Can he sacrifice? Can he be a complete player? Can he make the difference when it matters most? Can he lead the Washington Capitals to their first Stanley Cup?
His regular-season renaissance was remarkable. But by scoring 23 goals in his last 23 games and dragging the Capitals into the playoffs, all he did was put himself in a position where he needs to prove himself again.
Fair? No. The man has 30 goals and 59 points in 51 career playoff games -- incredible, Cup or no Cup.
“It’s a total different season,” said Ovechkin on Thursday before the Capitals’ opener against the New York Rangers. “I can’t compare regular year and the playoffs. We’ll see how it goes out there.”
There is a funny double standard in sports. We judge athletes based on how they perform as individuals. We also judge them as individuals based on how their team performs. It doesn’t just come from the media and the oversimplified analyses of us blowhards. It comes from the culture.
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Ask players how Ovechkin should be judged. You’ll hear stuff like this:
“We need him to score,” said Caps forward Troy Brouwer. “We need him to produce points for us to be successful. But that shouldn’t be the determining factor whether he has a good or bad playoffs. Whether we win the Stanley Cup or not, that should be the determining factor.”
Ovechkin wouldn’t argue. In an interview before the 2010-11 season, he told Yahoo! Sports that he broke into the NHL with two dreams – to be the greatest player in the world and to win the Cup – and he couldn’t achieve one without the other.
“You have to win something to say, ‘Yeah, I’m the greatest player in the world,’ ” Ovechkin said then.
But can Ovechkin control whether the Capitals win the Cup? Of course not. And if he steps out of line and tries to win the Cup by himself, what would we say then?
“The only way you can win is with depth,” said Capitals defenseman Mike Green. “You’re not going to win with one player or two players. It’s the whole team. We’ll let Ovi be the limelight of it all, but there’s more to the team than just him.”
Ask Capitals coach Adam Oates how Ovechkin should be judged. You’ll hear nothing about the Cup.
“He’s obviously one of the focal points of our team,” said Oates, a Hall of Famer who never won the Cup himself. “He gets a lot of minutes. But I need him to play the same way we’ve been talking all year long, a complete team game.”
The knock on Ovechkin and the Capitals used to be that they were great in the regular season but didn’t have what it takes in the playoffs. Ovechkin put up points. The Caps put up points. They won all kinds of trophies, but never the Cup. They always flamed out early because they couldn’t play their run-and-gun style when the game tightened, because they couldn’t defend well enough, because they weren’t tough enough mentally.
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So they changed their style. Bruce Boudreau went from offensive to defensive. Dale Hunter went from defensive to ultra-defensive. The Capitals went to the second round the last two years. Hunter got them within a game of the Eastern Conference final last year. But they still failed to win the Cup, and they turned Ovechkin into a lesser player in the process. Hunter cut Ovechkin’s ice time, sometimes dramatically.
Simply scoring didn’t work. Simply sacrificing didn’t work. They had to find a balance for Ovechkin and the team. They had to find a way to get the most out of their best player within the team concept, and they had to play a style that worked best for everyone.
So they hired Adam Oates. He moved Ovechkin from left wing to right wing, making him less predictable, putting him in position to touch the puck more often. He swung the pendulum back to the middle – asking the Caps to pursue the puck instead of sitting back, asking them to play offense when it’s time for offense and defense when it’s time for defense.
It was hard at first, especially because the lockout cut training camp to a week, erased the preseason and shortened the regular season to 48 games. The Capitals started 2-8-1. But Oates stayed positive and stuck with it, and eventually it clicked. Ovechkin got hot. Other stars improved, like Green and Nicklas Backstrom. The Caps went 15-2-2 in their final 19 games.
So here they are, and here is what we should really evaluate: How does Ovechkin play within the system? How does Oates use him? How does the system suit him and the rest of the team now that it’s playoff time? Do the Capitals have enough depth? How does all that factor into the results?
Asked what would satisfy him in terms of his individual performance, Ovechkin said: “If the puck goes in. That’s all that matters.” At least that’s where it starts.
Coaches like to say if you play the right way, the points will come. Oates says that, too. But as a former centerman who played with goal-scorers like Brett Hull, he also knows that for some players, it’s the other way around.
“Any player who’s expected to get points, when he gets his points, the rest of the game just falls into place,” Oates said.
Oates will not try to win in spite of Ovechkin, the way Hunter did. He will try to win because of him. If the Capitals have a lead late in a game, will he put Ovechkin on the ice instead of on the bench?
“Probably,” Oates said. “I’m not going to change that. When teams pull the goalie, he’s got one of the best sets of hands 0n my team. Why wouldn’t I have him on the ice?”
Ovechkin cannot control whether the Capitals win the Cup. But here is what he can do: He can show that Oates hockey is better than Hunter hockey in the playoffs, that he can be a star in all situations, that he isn’t just back to his old self but better than before.
“It doesn’t matter what’s going to happen,” Ovechkin said. “Do your thing, and you have to play better. You have to do your best job out there.”
At least Oates is giving him the opportunity to be his best.
“That’s the most important thing for me,” Ovechkin said.
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