Alexander Ovechkin, Shots on Goal, and the NHL Playoffs

Daniel McGowinCorrespondent IMay 2, 2009

NEW YORK - APRIL 22:  Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals skates against the New York Rangers during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Round of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 22, 2008 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Capitals 2-1 and lead the series 3 games to 1.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

As the NHL Playoffs continue, the most anticipated Conference Quarterfinal match-up features the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Washington Capitals (thank you, Carolina!).  Or, as many fans see this series, Sidney Crosby versus Alexander Ovechkin.

And with that in mind, I think it is worth revisiting the debate over Ovechkin's shots on goal.

On 21 April, I wrote an article here comparing Ovechkin to NBA star Allen Iverson.  The comparison focused on the amount of shots each takes compared to the rest of their respective team and how it is potentially detrimental to the playoff success of their team.

Needless to state that the comparison received a lot of criticism and feedback.  Some were upset that I compared Ovechkin to Iverson because they thought I was comparing personalities.  This was never the case, and I actually like Ovechkin and have a lot of respect for the passion he displays on the ice.

Others did not like the cross-sport juxtaposition, claiming that shots on goal in hockey are not necessarily to score but to create scoring changes, such as rebounds and put-backs.  However, this was still an indication that the team relied too heavily on Ovechkin, as is/was the case with Iverson.

Overall, the debate was stimulating and actually led me to watch more of the playoffs than I normally would, considering the Ottawa Senators did not make it.  And, with that, I have followed Ovechkin's numbers closely.  And, at least with the Rangers series, I think my thesis has held.

So far in the NHL Playoffs, Ovechkin is far and away the clear leader in shots on goal with 49.  Now granted, some teams played fewer games during the First Round.  However, Eric Staal, who finished second in SOG during the regular season and is currently second in the playoffs, has played in as many playoff games as Ovechkin and is still 16 shots behind.

But that is not what is important when it comes to the Capitals' series with the Rangers.  Let's look at Ovechkin's numbers in that series.

  • Game One - 13 shots (37 percent of team's total shots); LOSS
  • Game Two - six shots (17 percent of team's shots); LOSS
  • Game Three - five shots (12.5 percent of team's shots); WIN
  • Game Four - 11 shots (28 percent of team's shots); LOSS
  • Game Five - three shots (14 percent of team's shots); WIN
  • Game Six - six shots (27 percent of team's shots); WIN
  • Game Seven - five shots (20 percent of team's shots); WIN

Now, while the latter two games display a pattern of taking a lot of shots, the numbers deserve some qualifying.

First, shooting between four to six shots per game is closer to the league average for a team's top shooter (see Staal, Zach Praise, and Jeff Carter).  So Ovechkin's contribution in those games was on par with the rest of the top shooters in the NHL.

Second, Game Two was a game that could have followed that pattern had it not been for a superb performance by Rangers' goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.  His 35 saves in a tight 1-0 game cannot be ignored.

Third, in three of the four victories for Washington—Games Three, Five, and Seven—Ovechkin was not even the leading shooter in the game.  Alexander Semin was the leading shooter in Games Three and Seven, while Eric Fehr led in Game Five.  In fact, Ovechkin was tied for second with Sergei Federov in Game Five.

This third point is crucial for it denotes a shift in burden away from Ovechkin and spreads it to other players.  Once this happened, Washington seemed to be a better team.

One final point, changing goaltenders is something that specifically has nothing to do shots on goal, but had a lot to do with Washington winning the series.  It would be a disservice to Simeon Varlamov to not point out his stellar play since taking over for Jose Theodore. 

He is a big reason why the Capitals are playing hockey on Saturday rather than golf.

In conclusion, I believe that the Rangers series proves my point that when Ovechkin's shots on goal are tempered, the Capitals are in a better position to win.  The recent historic trend of Stanley Cup winners also supports that argument.

It was never my intent to knock Ovechkin's skill, but just an observation of how his high amount of shots on goal runs counter to the trends of championship teams.

I do think that Ovechkin will eventually lead his team to the Stanley Cup Finals and perhaps win it someday.  But he cannot do it all on his own; taking 10+ shots in the process.

Of course, he could prove be wrong with the series against the Penguins and sweep Pittsburgh while taking 12 shots a game.  Or, conversely, take two shots per game and lose to Crosby and the Pens.

One thing is for certain, no matter how many shots he takes in the series, he will likely have fun doing it.


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