Gorman: Ovechkin goes missing in Game 7
WASHINGTON — Alex Ovechkin stood in shock at his locker stall, struggling to explain how his NHL-leading Washington Capitals had blown a 3-1 series lead and lost Game 7 to the Montreal Canadiens.
"I don't know," he said. "I just don't know."
The words were missing.
Just like his scoring touch.
Beforehand, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau had issued a challenge for the Capitals captain, calling the deciding game against Montreal "another opportunity for his reputation to grow" and the pressure Ovechkin was facing "the price of being one of the top players in the league." Capitals forward Eric Fehr took it a step further: "We expect a huge game from him."
In response, the favorite to win a third consecutive Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player shrunk in the spotlight when his team needed him most. The Capitals expected Ovechkin to carry them in the deciding game of their first-round series, and he didn't deliver.
This is the time of year when superstars are expected to provide the scoring, when captains are expected to provide leadership.
Ovechkin didn't do enough of either.
Come playoff time, that "C" on Ovechkin's sweater has been more of a scarlet letter than badge of honor. He dominates the regular season and disappears in the biggest games in the playoffs. That's especially true in Game 7s, where Ovechkin is growing a reputation as a no-show.
Teams reward their best players the captaincy as a sign of respect, but it comes with tremendous responsibility. Teammates look to their captain not so much to be outspoken, but to set an example for them to follow.
But word out of Washington was that Ovechkin skipped the Capitals' optional skate the day before Game 7. Alexander Semin followed suit, even though he hadn't scored a goal on 36 shots in the series.
It was the biggest test Ovechkin has faced, and he failed to deliver. Just like he did with Russia in the Winter Olympics this past February, just like he did with the Capitals in his previous Game 7.
Boudreau acknowledged that his stars came up short, though he defended them by saying: "They cared, and they tried." Ovechkin fired 10 shots on net, had seven attempts blocked and missed on another. A third-period goal by Ovechkin was disallowed for goaltender interference by Mike Knuble.
It could have changed the momentum of the game, just like the laser snared in a glove save by the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury could have caused a different outcome in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal last year.
But that's the point. It didn't.
And they don't give an E for effort in the playoffs.
Last year, Ovechkin scored eight goals and 14 points in the playoffs against the Penguins but was scoreless until the Capitals trailed, 5-0, in Game 7. This year, Ovechkin scored five goals and 10 points against the Canadiens, but had only one goal and two points in the Capitals' four losses.
He hasn't played with the same edge — instilling fear in foes with his scoring ability and reckless abandon — since a two-game suspension for his hit that injured Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell in mid-March.
Not only did Ovechkin shy away from big hits, he appeared content to fire away from afar. That worked in the regular season, but it isn't sufficient in the playoffs, when opponents are committed to stopping shots.
That's when the star player is expected to work along the boards, crash the net and create scoring chances. Not rely on his wicked slap shot.
The captain sets the tone, and his teammates follow suit.
But Ovechkin has shown a stubborn refusal to change his game, one that could continue to help him collect one Hart Trophy after another. Until he does, the hardware that matters most — the Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup — appears destined for a superstar captain who gets what Ovechkin doesn't about the playoffs and has a reputation for delivering in the clutch: Sidney Crosby.