Time For the NHL to Find a New Poster Child
I realize the NHL has spent a lot of time and money in marketing Alexander Ovechkin as the Russian Magic Johnson to Sidney Crosby's Larry Bird. I also realize that Ovechkin is one of the 2 or 3 purest goal scorers in the NHL today, right along side the likes of the Lightning's own Steven Stamkos and the enigmatic Ilya Kovalchuk of the Devils. However, what I hope the Lightning's sweep of the Capitals proves to the hockey world, and whatever Madison Avenue agency is driving the NHL's marketing strategy, is that you cannot build one half of a league's marketing strategy around a player who simply does not play the game the right way and therefore cannot lead his team anywhere near a championship.
There's a lot that's been said about Ovechkin's "passion" for hockey and his "passion" for scoring goals. Is it a "passion" for hockey? Or is it a "passion" for drawing attention to Alexander Ovechkin? Is it a "passion" for scoring goals that causes this young man to disrespectfully show up his opponents every time he scores? Remember the hot stick? First off, let me say, I savor the fact that some of our guys like Martin St. Louis and Ryan Malone were able to issue a check for payback, in full, for that disgusting act from just a little over 2 years ago. But let me also say, how asinine is it that a league builds half of its entire marketing strategy around a player who cares more about individual scoring accolades in the regular season, as shown by that stupid, choreographed routine in 2009, than he does about winning a championship?
And how do I know he doesn't care about winning a championship? Look at his play in this series. Don't tell me what Ovechkin says he believes, pop in the tape and it'll show you what he believes. All I saw was a player taking shortcuts, freelancing, and then going back in his locker room and shooting his mouth off to draw attention to himself instead of actually exhibiting leadership. It's clear to me that the "C" on his chest really stands for "con man" because he's suckered a lot of people in hockey and the league office itself into believing there's something more there than a selfish, self-aggrandizing cancer. But I'm not fooled.
From Game 1, Ovechkin set about on a single-minded quest to try to go throughout this entire series using his linemates as little as possible. Time after time he skated in all by himself into the warm embrace of the Lightning's white jerseyed 1-3-1, and time after time he got his shots blocked and the Capitals' rushes diffused. And, instead of altering his strategy, Ovechkin just decided the best adjustment he could make was to do more of it, and so he extended his shifts so they soon became 90 seconds long and 120 seconds long skating right into Guy Boucher's spider web. Maybe that's just indicative of a player that's simply not too bright and a coach, in Bruce Boudreau, who was equally dim about the implications of the 1-3-1 system being deployed against them. But, by the time the series shifted to Tampa Bay, it became clear that it was more than that.
Down 2-0 in the series and headed to Tampa Bay, Ovechkin made the infamous guarantee that the Capitals would win both games at the St. Pete Times Forum. How did he back that up? He backed that up by completely abandoning any pretense of playing in his defensive third to try to cherry pick breakaway goals. He backed that up by continuing to extend his shifts and continuing to overhandle the puck and refuse to work with his linemates. And, he backed it up by being careless with his stick and elbows at critical junctures of the game, which was a sin he only avoided paying for by the grace of some poor officiating (and that's being charitable to the referees). So much for winning both games in Tampa Bay. And, what was worse was that as Ovechkin started freelancing from the the discipline of the Capitals' system, his teammates also began to deviate from the program. Net front coverage started being neglected. Turnovers started cropping up. The Lightning started to get as many scoring chances in a period as they did in the entire game, it seemed, in Games 1 and 2.
A leader would've realized his errors and the negative impact his play had on his team. Ovechkin's not a leader, though. So, faced with a 3-0 deficit, he decided to double down by shooting his mouth off and guaranteeing a Game 4 victory. I don't know why anyone would have bothered to take him at face value given his play in Game 3. He obviously wasn't interested in winning. Look at the tape of Game 3. He was only interested in drawing attention to himself. So, when game time rolled away for Game 4, what's the first thing Ovechkin did? He took a charging call that resulted in the Lightning taking a 1-0 lead on a fragile Capitals team that was already cracking apart. And as his teammates fell further and further into the downward spiraling cycle of poor defensive zone coverage and turnovers, what did Ovechkin do to get his team on the right track? He continued to extend his shifts and skate head long into the 1-3-1 getting his shots blocked and turning the puck over. Brilliant! There was no more fitting end to this series than Ovechkin's final rush that saw him get his shot partially blocked, the puck covered by Dwayne Roloson, with the Russian forward eventually tumbling harmlessly into the net, exhausted and clueless as to how he and his mighty Capitals team had been so thoroughly dissected by a Lightning club that was so beneath his contempt that he had no problem spitting in their eyes with his hot stick routine just 2 seasons prior.
Don't tell me it's because he doesn't know any better, either. With 6 NHL seasons and the bitter disappointments of 4 abbreviated playoff runs under his belt, don't tell me no one has ever pointed out to him that leadership starts by setting the example of how to play within the team concept. Don't tell me no one has ever told him that showing up players every time you score or shooting your mouth off guaranteeing wins is not the act of someone who is respectful of the integrity of the game. Don't tell me no one has ever told him that in the NHL you can't take 2 minute long shifts and you can't constantly try to win 1-on-2 and 1-on-3 off the rush. He's been told what he has to change in order to become successful in playoff time, and his play tells me that, in the end, he doesn't care. Because it's not about Alexander Ovechkin's "passion" for hockey it's about Alexander Ovechkin's passion for himself. For those reasons he's a dismal spokesperson in the league and instead of feeding into his ego with a zillion "Ovechtrick" commercials the NHL really ought to find a poster boy who actually, deep down, gives a damn about winning the Stanley Cup.
For as much garbage he has taken over the years from the media, please, someone, go back and look how Vincent Lecavalier reacted to the Lightning falling behind 1-3 in the Penguins series and then contrast it with Ovechkin from Game 2 on in this series. Did you see Vincent Lecavalier guaranteeing 3 straight wins and giving his opposition bulletin board material? Did you see him abandoning the team structure? Did you see him neglecting his defensive zone responsibilities to try to cherry pick breakways? Did you see him running around careless with his stick and elbows or consistently trying to freelance off the rush 1-on-2 or 1-on-3? No. Because the "C" on his chest stands for "captain" and Lecavalier has learned the long painful lesson over the course of his career that the franchise player can't just decide to ignore the system and try to make it all about himself. Not at this time of year. This time of year is about 20 players suiting up and playing within a team concept to achieve the same purpose. The second the star player starts deviating from that, you see the kind of unraveling we saw from the Washington Capitals from the 3rd Period of Game 3 on until the bitter end of their season tonight. One of the two captains in this game exhibited a level of maturity and professionalism that helped set an example so his team could advance. The other couldn't wait to go find someone in the media to give him some attention right after losing yet another game.
But Alex will always have the hot stick, and maybe that's enough to make him happy. I wonder how that felt in his hands tonight? Did it feel heavy, like the weight of a franchise that was collapsing under the strain of his self-serving ego? Or, did it feel light, like the driver he'll be using on the 1st tee in a few days. I would say "Fore, champ!" but I doubt very much that Alexander Ovechkin will be a "champ" at anything anytime soon. He's a fraud, and the only "Ovechtrick" is that the league continues to push this guy as one of the two faces of the NHL.