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Sunday, April 19, 2009
Is Ovie a winner? We're about to find out

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Va. -- And there went No. 8 in the red Capitals jersey Sunday morning, skating end-to-end through the other team and going in alone before being thwarted by the netminder.

It was not Alex Ovechkin; it was a 10-year-old playing in a squirts game an hour before the NHL team's optional practice took place in the same suburban rink. But the image was hard to ignore. Same number, same team name, same result.

These are indeed frustrating times for Mr. Ovechkin and his high-flying Caps.

By Wednesday night at 10 ET, after four games have been played in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers, we will have found out some revealing truths about one of the game's great young superstars.

Ovechkin is trying. He wants to win so badly. But the bottom line is that he has zero goals in this series and his team has zero wins. Forget the Hart and Rocket Richard trophies he already has on his impressive résumé. We're about to find out whether he's a winner. Or a leader. Or either.

It's unfair to lay the entire blame on No. 8 for his second-seeded club's being down 2-0, shockingly, to the seventh-seeded Rangers. But part of the deal when you make $9 million a year is to shoulder the largest responsibility for your team. No one can question his desire to win, but now he must show he can find a way when the going gets tough.

Yes, Alex, the Rangers are blocking a lot of your wrist shots, and that's a bummer. Well, find another way. Make better use of your linemates. Adjust your game.

Ovechkin, who didn't partake in Sunday's optional skate and didn't speak to reporters, will forever be compared to Nos. 87 and 71 in Pittsburgh. That's just the way it is. Those three are the NHL's post-lockout poster boys, arguably the best three players in the world, and their careers will always be measured against one another's.

Well, know this: Under the guidance of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the post-lockout Penguins have played 28 playoff games after Sunday's 6-3 loss in Philadelphia, winning 17 and losing 11. This is already their sixth playoff series in three springs. The Ovechkin-era Caps have played nine playoff games, losing six.

Believe us, No. 8 knows darn well what Nos. 87 and 71 have done in the playoffs, including a trip to last June's Stanley Cup finals. In fact, Ovechkin himself showed up at last season's finals in Pittsburgh to pick up some regular-season hardware and admitted how envious he was. He badly wanted to get to the Cup finals himself.

It starts Monday night at Madison Square Garden, Alex. Step up and lead your team. Find a way.

"Well, the people that have been around here all year know that Ovie wants to win more than anybody, and sometimes he takes too much pressure upon himself to do it," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said Sunday when asked whether he thought Ovechkin was pressing. "I think individually he's probably worried so much that everything relies on him. And it shouldn't. We should be taking pressure off him. It's not a one-man team."

Scoring a goal would be a good start. How can a team this offensively talented suddenly stop scoring?

Brian Pothier has seen this movie before. As a member of some highly skilled Ottawa Senators teams earlier this decade (2002-03 through 2005-06), the veteran defenseman saw firsthand how frustrating it can be for a team to dominate in the regular season but struggle come playoff time. The Sens of this era wrote the book on that one, although let's give them credit for at least reaching the 2007 Cup finals.

"The way you score goals in the regular season, it just doesn't work come playoff time," Pothier said. "The individual efforts that happen in the regular season, they don't really translate in a playoff atmosphere. Just get the puck to the net and all hell breaks loose and you bang it in somehow. I feel like some of those teams that are really skilled and play a perimeter game, like in Ottawa back then … we played a perimeter game and those ugly goals were tough to come by for us, and that's why we struggled."

Sound familiar?

"That's something that has sort of translated into this team, the individual [plays]," Pothier said. "In the playoffs, you can't take the puck end to end and score. I think when we don't score quickly, because we're used to scoring a lot of goals, we tend to get a little frustrated. So we almost take turns trying to go end to end. It's just not going to work. We need to stick to the game plan. Playoff hockey is not the same."

Pothier said the team has addressed this issue and talked about it. The question is, will the message get through?

"We have very talented guys, and they carry a lot of the burden for our winning and losing," Pothier said. "When they feel the pressure in the second or third period, they have a tendency to want to push.

"They want to do so much. It's not because they're selfish; it's because they want to win. If we can figure out how to buy into the group dynamic, we'll be better off for sure."

They need to figure it out very soon. Or else Ovechkin and his teammates will have a long, soul-searching summer.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.