The second-round Stanley Cup playoff series between the Penguins and Washington seems a legitimate toss-up.
Kris Letang’s absence could tilt things in the Capitals’ favor. Washington has superior depth and physicality, but Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom outnumbered.
If the Penguins split at D.C., like last year, they win the series. The Capitals need to win the first two games.
This matchup offers few guarantees. But it’s safe to bet that if the Capitals don’t advance, it won’t be Ovechkin’s fault.
Ovechkin is often branded a loser by talk-show morons (hosts and callers alike) because he’s never won a Cup. The Capitals have never even advanced past the second round in the Ovechkin era, which is hard to fathom.
But Ovechkin is an accomplished postseason performer, with 44 goals and 41 assists in 90 career playoff games. His effort and physicality is often overwhelming. (That’s where no Letang is crippling. Among Penguins defensemen, only he can match Ovechkin stride for stride and hit for hit.)
When the Penguins eliminated the Capitals in 2009, Ovechkin had eight goals and seven assists in that series’ seven games. Ovechkin did everything he possibly could to win.
Except score on a fourth-minute breakaway when Game 7 was still 0-0, that is. The Penguins went on to win, 6-2.
OK, so Ovechkin’s playoff resume isn’t perfect.
Ovechkin had two goals and five assists in last season’s six-game defeat at the hands of Pittsburgh. Letang held him largely in check.
Who, among the Penguins’ right-sided defensemen, is this year’s best bet to match up with Ovechkin? Ron Hainsey, perhaps, given his size (6-foot-3) and reach. Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley can keep up, but rely too much on finesse. Chad Ruhwedel would be a turnstile. None of the options can manage Letang’s minutes.
Ovechkin dominates on the power play, launching rockets from the left circle. How does the Penguins’ PK approach that? If the Penguins man up, Ovechkin can drift down low and open up ice for his teammates.
Ovechkin is simply a handful. The best goal-scorer of his generation. His career total might approach 800, especially amazing in the dead-puck era. Had Ovechkin played in the wide-open ‘80s, he might have netted 1,000.
This wasn’t a primo year for Ovechkin, 31. After scoring 50 or more goals in each of the last three seasons, he got just 33.
Does that mean he’s fading? That would help the Penguins. Ovechkin led the NHL in power-play goals with 17, so he scored just 16 at even strength.
If Ovechkin never wins a Cup, it will definitely put an informal asterisk on all his individual accomplishments. But he’s no choker.
Dan Marino never won a championship at any level of football. But he’s still one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. No one insults his lack of rings.
Some athletes gag, and that’s why they lose.
Some deserve to win, but don’t.
That’s Ovechkin so far. Blame his teammates, blame his coaches, blame management. But don’t blame Ovechkin.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).