More Ignominy For Russia And Ovechkin

Well Russia improved; they made the semi-finals, the score was not the 7-3 laugher it was in the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, and they managed to defeat the Canadian “B” team (disguised as Team North America) along the way. Other than that, this World Cup is just another signpost about how far the country once ranked as the second best in the world, if not the best, has fallen in comparison to Canada.

And of course during this “Ovechkin era”, Canada made sure that Russia’s leader had a clean sheet again; his name does not appear in the scoring statistics. His team got treated the same way his Washington Capitals get treated, they either get upset by inferior opponents, or they cannot create an upset themselves. They are willing to let Alexander Ovechkin get lots of individual honors, but no team glory which severely tarnishes his career and reputation. He can drown his sorrows with his spiritual ancestor, Marcel Dionne, who had a similar career.

Statistics tell the story. You are not going to win a game if you give up 47 shots in three periods. That the score was only 5-3 can be attributed to Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Goaltending may be the only position where there is any parity between Russia and Canada anymore.

Before the game, Team Canada tried to play down the “special rivalry” that has existed between them and Russia since 1972 and they were right. Russia is simply another team now, to be kicked aside in same manner the Canadians kicked aside the USA, Europe, and the Czech Republic.

Russian hockey is simply not what it was. In years past it had individual stars but it was the team collectively that shone together. Now Russia has some stars but no team. Ovechkin came into the NHL with the promise to be the first non-Canadian to be as good as the best Canadian, in this case Sidney Crosby. But Ovechkin’s career is only a shadow of Crosby’s who has two Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, one in which he scored the decisive goal, and probably will add a World Cup Championship to his shelf of honors after this tournament is over. Crosby is a difference maker; Ovechkin is not.

Today Russia is no longer one of the two teams to beat. They do not scare anybody anymore. And that is sad. Russia versus Canada used to be the game everyone looked forward to, the marquee match of every international hockey tournament. Now it is just another game.

Russia, Ovechkin Under The Gun At The World Cup

If Canadians would suspend their irrational pressure on the host country at the upcoming revived World Cup (Team Canada always has the most pressure on it at major international hockey tournaments) for just a few moments, they would understand that the country that really deserves the most pressure and expectation on it is not their own team but Russia. And the player who probably deserves most of the upcoming heat is Alexander Ovechkin – again.

This writer has scourged Ovechkin over the coals for several years now, mostly about his Washington Capital record. Ovechkin has loads of glorious individual awards, scoring titles, Hart trophies, etc., but his team record is horrible. The Washington Capitals with Ovechkin have yet to play in an Eastern Conference Final let alone compete for the Stanley Cup. This year the team with the most pressure on it was dispatched in six games in the second round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins – despite Ovechkin and his colleague Nicklas Backstrom outplaying their rivals, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin – and after running away with the President’s Trophy. Somehow with Ovechkin, Washington still finds ways to lose. Ovechkin is not the heir of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux but Marcel Dionne, who had a similar NHL career.

But even worse is Ovechkin’s international record. The “Ovechkin era” in Russian/Soviet hockey has been the worst since the Russians/Soviets began playing against NHL competition in 1972. At the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Russia lost in the quarter finals to Canada 7-3 which was probably the worst game this writer has ever seen a Russian/Soviet team play against Canada.

Even worse was another quarter final loss in 2014 on home ice at the Sochi Olympics, this time to Finland 3-1. The “Ovechkin era” in Russian hockey has been horrible, a steep fall for a country that was usually ranked #2 in international hockey tournaments behind only Canada if not the favored #1 team. Now Russia is just one of the group of “big 7″ countries, not picked to win the upcoming World Cup or even feared like they used to be. And since Ovechkin is the main guy on the team, like he is in Washington, the pressure and the attention naturally falls on him.

Hopefully for Russia, being the underdog for once will help the team’s fortunes. Another blatant setback for Russia should mean a lot of soul searching and another black mark on Ovechkin’s tattered belt. At the very least this team has to get to the semi-finals and win some sort of medal. Sweden, Finland, the United States and Czech Republic can go home and lick their wounds if they lose. Canada and Russia will return in the dismal depths of despair if they fail.

This may be Ovechkin’s last chance to make a significant mark internationally. He is already past his physical prime and the next major international competition will be the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea if the NHL decides to participate. He has to be desperate to get some sort of team triumph both with Russia and with Washington. He does not want to be ranked with Marcel Dionne as the best player in NHL history whose team career amounted to mediocrity. But that is how history will judge him if Russia and Washington continue to find ways to ignominiously lose, starting with this revived World Cup.

What The Washington Capitals Defeat Means

When Pittsburgh Penguin forward Nick Bonino scored in overtime in game 6 to eliminate the Washington Capitals, he caused the greatest anguish of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs. Washington HAD to win this series no matter who their opponent was, no matter how good their opponent is. Pittsburgh was the hottest team in the league at the end and they may well be the Stanley Cup champion. It doesn’t matter. Washington HAD to win this series.

It all goes back to the year both Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby entered the NHL and were projected to be rivals for best player in the league until their careers ended. But their paths widely diverged since then. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Ovechkin’s Russian rival, have won the Stanley Cup with Malkin also winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player. Crosby has also won 2 Olympic Gold Medals to Ovechkin’s none.

Ovechkin has piled up individual trophies but as a team player, his record is horrible. He has never even been to an Eastern Conference Final, never mind winning the Stanley Cup. Just as dismal is his international record. The Russian team used to be second to Canada, if not the favored team in international competition. But in Ovechkin’s heyday, the Russians have been horrible, first in Vancouver in 2010, and even worse, on home ice in Sochi in 2014. He has never been the difference-maker, the player who lifted his team above everyone else.

Ovechkin and the Capitals were expected to match their rivals, the  Pittsburgh Penguins, to win in head-to-head matches in the playoffs at least 50% of the time. But not only have the Capitals failed to match Pittsburgh, they get put out of the playoffs in the first or second round by lesser teams – Philadelphia, Montreal, Tampa Bay, and the New York Rangers. Many times the Capitals would be ahead in a series only to squander it and find a way to lose. The Ovechkin era Capitals are wheel-spinners, the worst chokers of the Eastern Conference.

For Ovechkin, and long-time teammates, Nicklas Backstrom, and Brooks Orpik, this year may have been their best and last chance to finally get over the hump. Washington won the President’s Trophy and finished ahead of everyone by a mile. Now all that means nothing, all is in ruins. To show real improvement, that Washington really had improved, that there was hope for the future, the playoff wheel-spinning Capitals HAD to make it to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time during the Ovechkin era. Now once more Washington failed to win AGAIN when they had to.

What is particularly agonizing about this defeat is Ovechkin and Backstrom badly outplayed their direct rivals, Crosby and Malkin who were mostly silent in this series. Washington also got a big contribution from T. J. Oshie who came through in critical times for the Capitals, something that was so sorely lacking in the playoffs during the Ovechkin era. But Orpik stupidly got himself suspended, just when his team needed him the most.

It did not help that the hockey gods in their wisdom unkindly removed the erratic, Jekyll and Hyde Pittsburgh playoff goaltender Marc Andre Fleury and replaced him with the steady Matt Murray who has given Pittsburgh the kind of playoff goaltending they have been searching for since 2009. Fleury might have been counted on to blow a couple of games as he has so often done since 2009. If Murray does not get injured and continues to play well, Fleury has probably played his last game as a Penguin.

But on the flip side, Washington goaltender Braden Holtby had to significantly outplay Murray and he failed to do so. The question of goaltender will be an issue in Washington’s future.

Even more frustrating is that Washington changed coaches during the Ovechkin era AGAIN, bringing in Barry Trotz who had some success with the under-talented Nashville Predators. Now twice he becomes the latest of a string of coaches who failed to get an Ovechkin-led team into the Conference Final or the equivalent Olympic Medal round.

The biggest problem is where do the Capitals go from here? Some speculators might be smug and say that nothing can diminish the Capitals outstanding regular season and that they ran into an unfortunate playoff opponent. But Pittsburgh will be around again next year. So will Tampa Bay. The New York Rangers are still around. Even up-and-coming Philadelphia started to smell the Capitals blood, winning two straight games, and it took a gritty 1-0 win in Philadelphia to get Washington to the next round. There is also the improved New York Islanders, plus any team that did not make the playoffs, particularly the Boston Bruins if they draft and trade well in the off-season. The likely-hood of Washington repeating its outstanding regular season and finding playoff success next year is doubtful.

Ovechkin and Orpik are in the 30s, past their prime, on the downside of their careers. They will not improve as players. There is the question of goaltending. There is the fact that the Capitals got an outstanding effort from T. J. Oshie and it still was not enough. And the excuse of changing the coach should be over and done with.

The ugly truth may be that the Washington Capitals, that Alexander Ovechkin, is not good enough. The facts speak for themselves; Ovechkin’s international record and that Washington has never even made it to the Eastern Conference Final during the prime of Ovechkin’s career.

When Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton in 1988, the excuse was made that he was a “wasting asset”. But Gretzky was only 27, still in the prime of his career, and Edmonton was still winning Stanley Cups. He was hardly a “wasting asset”.

But surely that term more properly belongs to Ovechkin, despite getting a significant contribution from him in this round. With Crosby and Malkin mostly silent, Ovechkin’s, Oshie’s, and Backstrom’s contributions were still not enough. The time has probably come to trade Ovechkin, Orpik, and Backstrom while Washington can still get something for them. Their career playoff records speak for themselves. They are not good enough.

Washington is now at a crossroads. The team can pat itself on the back and rest on its regular season laurels or make a significant, deep reappraisal about the talent and future of this team.

Whether they make a significant move or do nothing at all, anything Washington does or does not do in this off season will be controversial. That is the result of this defeat by Pittsburgh, off season anguish and turmoil whether they do something or not. The future that might have been clear if Washington had at last, at least made the Eastern Conference Final is now in doubt.

All The Pressure Will Be On Washington/Ovechkin/Trotz

As the NHL season ends and anticipation for the playoffs begins, there are some teams that will have more than the average pressure on them to do well in the playoffs and the runaway leader of this group is the Washington Capitals. The President’s Trophy winner MUST make it to the Eastern Conference Final and do well in that round before bowing out. That is the MINIMUM goal that will be acceptable. Chicago and Los Angeles can put their feet up and not win for another decade. They have won their Stanley Cups and have exceeded expectations. Even Pittsburgh (the team with the second most amount of pressure on it in the coming playoffs, seeking to regain the future that was predicted for them when they drafted Crosby and Malkin) will not have as much pressure on them as Washington. Crosby and Malkin can retire knowing that they have won at least one Stanley Cup, which puts them on the level with Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita of the 1960s Chicago Blackhawks glory teams.

But a similar future was predicted for the Washington Capitals when they drafted Alexander Ovechkin. It was a unique situation, the first in NHL history. Never before had a non-Canadian player been drafted who was predicted to be as good or even better than the current best Canadian player. There was expected to be a personal rivalry between Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby from the start to the finish of their careers. But Sidney Crosby has won a Stanley Cup and two Olympic Gold medals. He can retire with some sense of achievement.

The same cannot be said for Alexander Ovechkin. His Washington Capitals have never even made it to the Eastern Conference Final, never mind competing in the Stanley Cup Final round. Just as humiliating is the poor performance of the Russian team during the peak years of Ovechkin’s career. It was bad enough to have a poor performance in Vancouver in 2010, but to be knocked out by Finland in only the quarter finals on your own home ice in Sochi in 2014 really stings. Ovechkin wins scoring titles, not championships. His true rival is no longer Sidney Crosby but Marcel Dionne, currently the greatest NHL player never to even make the Conference Final.

Ovechkin has now reached the age of 30, usually the starting point for the decline of hockey skills to retirement. Time is starting to run out for him. Oh he will still be unanimously elected to the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame, there’s no danger of missing that, but it will not be on the level he wants, not if his Washington and Russian teams do not win. He will be judged great, but overrated. And this may be the most pressure year he has ever faced. The glories of the regular season including the President’s Trophy will mean nothing if they bow out in the first two rounds to a team of lesser talent like they have so often in the past. The Capitals MUST make the Conference Final for this season to be judged as a season of progress.

Also under the magnifying glass will be Washington coach, Barry Trotz. He has done a wonderful job during the regular season as he did a similar competent job in guiding the under-talented Nashville Predators into the playoffs in previous years. But this is the first time he will enter the playoffs with a really talented team. Its playoff confidence will be shaky. The veterans on this team like Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Orpik, etc., know only too well how they have failed in the past to lift this team to the heights expected of it. If this team starts to lose to the upstart, eighth place, mouse-that-roared, playoff team, morale and confidence could disintegrate very quickly and the situation would be like trying to plug too many holes in a crumbling dam. Trotz’s coaching savvy could be very sorely tested in the coming weeks.

So it will not be an envious position to be a Washington Capital in April. It will be far more relaxing to be a Chicago Blackhawk, a Los Angeles King, or a member of a playoff underdog team with nothing to lose. Even if the Capitals make the Stanley Cup Finals, they will be underdogs if their opponents are either the Chicago Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings, two teams that have won it all recently and know how to win it again. All the way it will be tough on Washington because they have failed to win and meet expectations in the past. Will this be Washington’s year of glory or the Capitals’ and Ovechkin’s last chance?