Well, here we go again. It’s springtime and the Penguins are on a Stanley Cup run, so that must mean a series against the Washington Capitals. Fun fact that has been circulating around this week — in all four Cup wins, the Penguins have knocked out the Washington Capitals on their way to claiming the chalice. The 2016-17 Capitals are an incredibly strong squad, though, and this could be one of the finest editions to come out of D.C. in some time.
It’s natural to assume that the Penguins must shut down Alexander Ovechkin if they want to succeed, but that no longer may be true. We might be bearing witness to the start of the decline phase on Ovechkin’s sure-fire Hall of Fame career. Since his debut in the 2005-06 season, Ovechkin has scored 558 goals, including seven 50+ goal campaigns. The next closest in that same timeframe is our own Sidney Crosby with 382, so you can see the disparity is quite large.
However, even though Ovechkin scored 50 goals last season, he may have started his decline phase this year, as he only notched 33 goals. That tally is his lowest goal-scoring output since he scored 32 in 2012-13 — but that was the lockout-shortened season and he led the league with that number in 48 games. This year’s total was over a full 82 games played. Curiously, over the past three years when he crested 50 goals each year, he averaged 393 shots on goal. This year, that total dropped 20.3% to ‘just’ 313 shots on goal, his lowest total in a full season since 2011-12.
Has Ovechkin been playing injured this year? No, not injured as in this hit from the first round via Nazem Kadri. Rather, has there been a season-long injury that has plagued him enough to slow him down, but not enough to put him on the injury list? I don’t think that’s the case, as playing 82 games is a true grind in today’s NHL. So that leaves age-induced decline.
Ovechkin has always been a trigger man first and foremost, as his 477 assists to his 558 goals attests. But his assists and corresponding assist rates have been plummeting in recent years. Last season in his 50 goal campaign, he had only 21 assists in 79 games (0.27/game). There was an uptick this year to 36 in 82 games (0.44/game), which isn’t great, but 27 of those were at even-strength. Those 27 even-strength assists are the most he’s had since 2010-11 and indicate that he’s been more willing (or forced) to rely on his linemates of Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie to offset the scoring load.
Nicklas Backstrom is perhaps the most underrated star in the NHL, mostly due to his quiet demeanor both on and off the ice. His 86 points (23 goals-63 assists) were good for 4th in the NHL, one spot behind Crosby’s 89. In their first round series against the Maple Leafs, Backstrom’s 6 points and Oshie’s 7 paced the Capitals, with Ovechkin contributing just 3 goals and no assists in the 6 games.
The whole line of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie has been strong on the puck possession metrics so far in the playoffs, with all three well above 50%, but it’s pretty evident that the offense now flows through Backstrom instead of being funneled to Ovechkin. Check out Backstrom quietly gliding through the high slot then dishing off to Ovechkin, who promptly ripped a one-timer through the next in Game 3.
All eyes need to focused on shutting down Backstrom’s passing lanes to both Ovechkin and Oshie. By eliminating his time and space, the Penguins can effectively thwart the preferred method of puck distribution to the two wingers. If that avenue is eliminated, then it just comes down to clearing rebounds and preventing cheap goals in tight. Easier said than done, I know.
The national media and networks will be trumpeting Crosby-Ovechkin, but that’s an outdated touchstone. For the Penguins to advance they must worry more about Nicklas Backstrom.