The Agony of Alex

Twenty years ago, after one of the dozen or so playoff losses that left his heart numb, football coach Marty Schottenheimer stopped a press conference and asked everyone to turn off their tape recorders. And then he sheepishly asked: “What am I doing wrong?”

It was an awful question because the answer was so thoroughly unsatisfying. Schottenheimer was a terrific coach. His teams almost always made the playoffs. He instilled discipline and inspired togetherness and taught players how, in his words, to “focus and finish.” But Schottenheimer’s teams inevitably lost anyway because — well, why? Chance? Stage fright? A few misguided decisions? A couple of mistimed blunders? Bad luck?

Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, the fates seemed against Washington’s Alex Ovechkin. The puck kept hopping over his stick like a child jumping puddles. His shot — maybe the best pure shot in the history of professional hockey — kept streaking off target. Like Artie Fufkin of Spinal Tap fame, Ovechkin had no timing … no timing … no timing.

And for the eighth time in the last nine years, Ovechkin’s Capitals expired before the conference finals.

“I don’t know what to say,” Ovechkin said after Pittsburgh extinguished his Capitals’ hopes. He added that coming up short again “sucks,” but there wasn’t too much else to say.

The Capitals, willed largely by Ovechkin’s energy, had overcome a 3-0 deficit to force overtime in Game 6. Pittsburgh, though, played with more fury and energy in overtime. The Penguins really won the game twice. The first time, Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist backhanded a puck into a seemingly empty net. But Washington’s Jay Beagle flew across the crease, Superman style, and somehow blocked it with his stick. Even after an endless study of replays, it still seemed impossible; it was as remarkable a play as you will ever see.

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And it did not matter because moments later Pittsburgh’s Nick Bonino unsentimentally cracked home a rebound. The horn sounded. The Pittsburgh crowd erupted. The game and Washington’s season was over.

And so, like Schottenheimer asked years ago, we now ask the question: What is Alex Ovechkin doing wrong? The answer is just as unsatisfying. Ovechkin is coming off yet another spectacular, even historic season. For the third consecutive year, he was the NHL’s only 50-goal scorer. He now has seven 50-goal seasons; only Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy have more. But Gretzky and Bossy played in a time when goals came easier and 50-goal seasons were commonplace.

Let’s put it this way: Bossy scored 50 goals nine times. In those nine seasons, an average of seven players scored 50 goals. Meanwhile, in four of Ovechkin’s seven 50-goal seasons, he was the only player in the NHL to do it. Since the 2007-08 season, only Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos have scored 50 goals in a season more than once.

This year, Ovechkin was again Ovechkin, firing that devastating shot at goalies night after night. But the Capitals were different. For years, the knock was that Ovechkin did not have a good enough cast around him. Well this time around, the Capitals had Braden Holtby, who Ovechkin proudly called “the best goalie in the world.” This time the Capitals had right wing T.J. Oshie, the American Olympic hero. This time the Capitals had three-time Stanley Cup winner Justin Williams, who has always displayed a knack for being at his best in the biggest moments.

Yes, this time Washington was the best team in hockey. The Capitals finished with the league’s best record. They finished second in the NHL in both goals scored and goals allowed. They seemed to stare down some of their demons by dispatching a game Philadelphia team in the opening round. Then they won Game 1 against the Penguins — in overtime and on an Oshie goal — and it seemed like this time would be different.

Then it just slipped away. The Capitals outplayed Pittsburgh in Game 3 but lost anyway. Washington’s players and coaches were surprisingly chipper after that loss; they seemed to believe that they would build off the momentum of their dominating but futile performance. In Game 4, Pittsburgh played without their best defenseman, Kris Letang, and they were also missing defenseman Olli Maatta. Again there were long stretches of time when the Capitals were the best team on the ice. Again, it didn’t matter. Pittsburgh won the game in overtime to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

“That’s why it’s sudden death,” coach Barry Trotz said after that crushing game. “That’s what it feels like.”

Ovechkin seemed at a loss. He had failed to score in Game 4 even with all those holes in the Pittsburgh defense. He kept playing with high energy. He kept firing shots. They just didn’t go in.

Ovechkin was more effective in Game 5, scoring one goal, assisting on another, as the Capitals stayed alive. But Game 6 was a fog. Oh, it’s easy to miss: Ovechkin was good on Tuesday. He played with fury. He had two assists in the Capitals’ furious comeback. His awesome presence tilted the Pittsburgh defense and opened up possibilities for his teammates.

MORE: Watch: Bonino’s game-winner | O’Brien: Blaming Ovechkin is silly | Will Caps fans quit?

But, in the end, Ovechkin is no decoy. He plays to score goals, and there was just something… off. The puck kept moving on him. Defenders kept standing him up and pushing him out. He couldn’t quite get his stick on several superb scoring chances, including one in overtime. He whiffed a couple of times. His usually laser-precise shot sailed off course. He never quite looked comfortable.

Ovechkin did not lose this game, far from it. If you want to look at it reasonably, the Capitals lost because Braden Holtby allowed an astonishingly cheap goal in the first period, probably the worst goal he has allowed in months, and that changed the dynamic of the game. If you want to look at it reasonably, the Capitals lost because Evgeny Kuznetsov, the team’s leading scorer, was practically invisible just like he was for most of the series; Kuznetsov did not have a single point in the last four games. If you want to look at it reasonably, the Capitals lost because they did not fully take advantage of the Penguins’ historic run of three delay-of-game penalties in about two minutes. Washington did score the game-tying goal, but couldn’t finish the job. Then, the Capitals came out in overtime and looked a bit shell-shocked by Pittsburgh’s overwhelming energy.

The Capitals lost as a team, like teams always do, but of course, the light shines harshest on Alex Ovechkin. He is the star without a Stanley Cup, and so he will take the brunt of the blame the way Dan Marino did, the way Karl Malone did, the way Marty Schottenheimer did. When this season ended like all the other seasons have ended, Ovechkin looked devastated. You had to wonder if, like Schottenheimer, he was asking himself that awful question: “What am I doing wrong?”

The question is awful because the answer just might be: “Nothing.”

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