A second-round meeting between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins has been the seemingly inevitable annual rite of passage for the post-season over the past few seasons. It’s a meeting of two top teams, both of which are among the most popular in the league, and just as everyone expected entering the series, one of the major storylines through two games of an already excellent Round 2 tilt is the battle between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
The Ovechkin-Crosby storyline is destined to be headline material every single time these two teams square off, of course, as any meeting between the Capitals and Penguins offers up a head-to-head between the two brightest lights of the post-lockout era, a fight for supremacy among two of the game’s all-time superstars. History, though, has told us that there’s likely only one way this is going to play out for Ovechkin and the Capitals: shaking hands with Crosby and his Penguins teammates before meeting one final time for locker clean-out day in Washington.
All-time, the battles between the two teams lean decidedly in Pittsburgh’s favor. Sure, the Capitals have the regular season edge, holding a 23-21-8 record in the 52 meetings between the two teams in the post-lockout NHL, but the Penguins have won and won often when it counts. As has been said no less than a thousand times heading into this post-season series between the two teams, Pittsburgh has a perfect record across the three meetings between the Crosby-led Penguins and Ovechkin-led Capitals in the playoffs. That includes seven-game victories in 2009 and 2017, as well as a six-game victory in 2016. As if to rub that little bit of extra salt in the wound, too, each series win for Pittsburgh over Washington in this era has been followed by the Penguins hoisting the Stanley Cup.
But what’s often overlooked when revisiting past meetings between the two teams and the constant reminder that Ovechkin and his Capitals have had a great difficulty in ousting Crosby and his Penguins from the post-season is that very little of the blame for that could or should fall on Ovechkin. Matter of fact, when the two players and their respective teams have collided in the post-season, Ovechkin has been just as good, if not better than Crosby from a statistical perspective.
Entering the current series, there had been 20 playoff games between Pittsburgh and Washington in the post-lockout era, with Ovechkin suiting up in each and every one and Crosby missing one outing during last season’s series. Over those games, Ovechkin has been a powerhouse for the Capitals, scoring an impressive 12 goals and 26 points, with Crosby trailing with 11 goals and 22 points in one fewer game. Some will undoubtedly suggest that Ovechkin’s numbers are boosted by his presence on the power play, but that’s not quite the case. In fact, Crosby has the edge in power play goals — four to Ovechkin’s three — and the two were dead-even in 5-on-5 points heading into the 2018 battle with 14 points apiece.
If you’re to make the case about the offensive contributions, it’s worth considering what the rest of team has done around their respective superstar captains, as well. And if the Capitals’ failings in the post-season against the Penguins point to anything, it’s that finding players who have offered scoring support for Ovechkin in these battles against Pittsburgh hasn’t been easy for Washington.
Prior to the 2018 series, Ovechkin had scored 21.8 percent of the Capitals’ goals in the three series against the Penguins and had a point on 47.3 percent of every Washington goal when the two teams met in the post-season. Even with all the changeover the Capitals have seen, it’s worth noting, too, that Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are the only players with 10 or more points for Washington against Pittsburgh in the playoffs. Crosby, by comparison, has respective marks of 15.9 percent, 34.9 percent and has three teammates put at least 10 points up in the three prior series against Washington.
For the sake of argument, we can play the “big game” card, too. Crosby has been no slouch in the crucial outings of past post-season series against Washington, scoring four goals and 12 points from Games 4 to 7 against the Capitals. But Ovechkin, who has been called out for his failure to show up in big games before, has five goals and 13 points in the same games.
And true as it is that there’s more to the game than pure offense, the underlying numbers don’t really suggest Ovechkin has been overshadowed by Crosby. Using the three prior series, Ovechkin holds the edge in Corsi for percentage (56 percent to 50 percent), shots for percentage (54 percent to 52 percent), scoring chances for percentage (55 percent to 53 percent) and high-danger scoring chances for percentage (55 percent to 49 percent). It should be said, too, that Ovechkin had generated 57 more shot attempts, 22 more shots and thirteen more individual scoring chances than Crosby in the three prior meetings. Granted, Ovechkin has a higher slant of offensive-zone starts, beginning 59.8 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts in Penguins’ zone, but Crosby’s not all that far behind at 53.2 percent.
It seems the statistical history between the two is set to continue, too. Through two games, Ovechkin has the edge in almost every category. He’s got two goals to Crosby’s one, three points to Crosby’s two and Ovechkin has generated more attempts and more chances for himself, though the overall 5-on-5 numbers, save Corsi for percentage, lean in Crosby’s favor. So, too, do the offensive zone starts this time around, though.
No matter how the rest of the series shakes out, however, history suggests Ovechkin will continue to drive the Capitals offense slightly more than Crosby paces the Penguins. Unfortunately, that same history points to Pittsburgh moving on and Washington heading home early, and if that turns out to be the case, chances are Ovechkin will once again unfairly shoulder some, if not most, of the blame.
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