After watching the 8th seeded Montreal Canadiens bounce the NHL’s top team in the first round, the Washington Capitals are stuck home watching the rest of the survivors vie for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Not only did the Caps have more wins and more points than any other team in the regular season, they were also the most prolific goal scoring team in the league, yet this still wasn’t enough to beat a team who scored six less goals than they allowed this year. After another playoff let down, we are left to ponder; is Alexander Ovechkin overrated?
While this may seem a preposterous question to ask of someone with so many individual awards, he wouldn’t be the first elite athlete forced to defend himself against a reputation as a playoff letdown. His personal accolades are well known (NHL ROY, 2 Hart Trophies, 3-time all-star), but he can’t avoid the reality of his team’s playoff finishes. The past three seasons, Ovechkin has led the Capitals to third, second, and first place finishes in the Eastern Conference regular season. Yet, they’ve been upset each year, twice in the first round. While this is a team effort, doesn’t the NHL’s best player bear the brunt of the responsibility?
Take the never-ending comparison of Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the superstar matchup the NHL loves, for example. Statistically, Ovie is “better” if you simply look at goals scored and points totals. But look deeper at their points/game averages, and Sid the Kid is better (he did miss 20+ games in 07-08). Sid’s been in 2 Cups, winning last year. Crosby doesn’t have to defend himself because he’s won in the playoffs. Ovechkin hasn’t. Sure, one could argue that Crosby’s had a great supporting cast, citing Marian Hossa, Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin, not to mention solid goal play by Marc-Andre Fleury. But that argument loses all merit when looking at what Ovechkin had to work with this year. Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom were very good this year, and while their goalie play wasn’t fantastic in the playoffs, teams don’t win 54 games by accident.
All of this brings us back to Alexander the Great. Everyone expects more from their superstar players in the playoffs. When he showed up to play, the Caps won three games. But the four losses? Try one goal and one assist. That’s not acceptable when the games mean the most. Washington had a 3-1 series lead, yet let the 8th-seeded Canadiens storm back and take the series, limiting Ovie to 2 pts. Should he be blamed?
Let’s look at other sports for a comparison. Alex Rodriguez is one of this generation’s best baseball players. Before the ’09 playoffs, he had 553 HR and a career .306 average. Yet he was labeled a choke and overrated by many around the league (Yankee fans included) for his epic playoff failures which included 2 series wins and no pennants in his career. When he finally performed in the 2009 playoffs, his team won a World Series and the monkey was off his back. Kobe Bryant ran Shaquille O’Neal from the Lakers following a fruitful pairing that produced three titles in their time together. Once O’Neal was gone, the pressure was on Bryant to show that he could win on his own. On his first four years alone, he missed the playoffs, then two first-round losses, and a Finals loss, all while piling up individual awards and achievements. Still, those didn’t matter until Kobe was able to conquer the Orlando Magic in 2009, to win his first championship as the leader of his team. Finally, consider Peyton Manning’s reputation before winning Super Bowl XLI. Two MVP awards, unbelievable statistics, superb regular season finishes, yet in nine career playoff games, Manning only had three wins to show for it. It wasn’t until his Super Bowl win in 2006 that his status as the best could be cemented. Those are three superstars who had to endure years of questioning whether they were only fantasy superstars and not playoff heroes, until they finally won big in the postseason. Why should Ovechkin be immune?