When Matt Pettinger bears down on a goalie in breakaway fashion, quite often he’s money. But this season, like all of Caps’ his teammates, he fires blanks in shootouts.
With Alexander Ovechkin, forget about breakaways — when he’s on his patented bullrush on the wing, even with an able defender between him and the goalie, you can almost see the netminder’s white knuckles through his glove. And yet we’ve fairly reached the point of expecting his failure in shootouts.
This hockey team, which positively feasted on the shootout a year ago, has been mystifyingly stymied by them in ’06-’07. In four shootouts thus far, they haven’t potted a single tally. It’s reached the point where Joe Reekie might be recruited out of the broadcast booth for the next OT-ender.
All the odder in light of the personnel picking up the puck at center ice this season: wheareas last year Coach Hanlon relied on AO and then shooter by committee (Brooks Laich, Brian Willsie, Matt Pettinger, Dainius Zubrus), this season he seemingly has a sturdy set of snipers in AO, Alex Semin, and Pettinger. So what gives?
Last month, in discussing what was then perceived a “struggling” Alexander Ovechkin, I observed of the shootouts: “[they] . . . are sui generis satisfiers; what’s accomplished in them in no way is translatable to the games proper themselves. Hockey the team sport is divorced from its cohesion by them.”
This season’s shootout struggles, juxtaposed by individual Caps’ breakaway success rates during regulation play, has reinforced my assessment of last month. A sort of sterile quality seems to accompany the shootouts — sterile on the ice but certainly not in the stands, or before the televisions at home — one which wholly removes the MoJo achieved by the better team in regulation play, and one in which the team (usually road) perhaps regarded as underdog is better able to best its foe.
I still defend them (obviously for regular season only); I still enjoy watching them — they are light years more dramatic than even soccer’s penalty kicks (think Marek Malik), and a season and a quarter’s worth of shootouts has affirmed what’s long been alleged about the showdown between hockey’s lone shooter and netminder: it’s the most exciting 5 seconds in sports.
But after their novelty has worn off a bit and we’re afforded the ability to evaluate shooter and goalie succcess rates with more than a handful of attempts, and now that we can make cross-season comparisons a bit as well, something perhaps unforeseen about them has taken root: there is a comfort zone karma seemingly afforded one team while settling in less so on the other. One team appears to view the shootout opportunity as a chance to steal a point, while the other, squeezing the life out of its sticks, feels it must defend this same point.
Or put this way: better to be the hunter than the hunted. Last season’s Caps were nightly shootout hunters; this season, they are more the hunted.
Prior to his miss last night against Tim Thomas, Ovechkin’s ever downward spiralling shootout shot rate reached 38 percent. But last autumn, when he was a relative unknown, and his Caps’ team was nightly thrilled just to have taken a game past the 5-minute 4-on-4 sudden death, he looked a shootout natural, and the Caps looked like veritable Hockey Harlem Globetrotters as shootout shooters, stealing additional standings points right and left.
The purists will ever condemn shootouts, but as they become established competitive protocol they are evolving. We are witnessing the emergence of shootout specialists just as baseball has its setup men and closers. Last month Ottawa Senators’ coach Bryan Murray sat stars Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley, and Jason Spezza for a shootout against division rival Montreal. Seeming one-point suicide, no? The Sens won it with Antoine Vermette and Mike Fischer lighting the shoout lamp.
You might think the likes of Joe Sakic, Jarome Iginla, Peter Forsberg, Jaromir Jagr, or Simon Gagne would profit most from the shootout. You would think wrongly. I don’t have data updated for November, but through October Dallas’ Jussi Jokinen was the best shootout shooter in the league, hands down. Dating back to last season, he was 11-for -14. That’s a shootout specialist.
It might strike you as unimaginable this morning — or perhaps it won’t if, like me, you’re weary of these unending shootout failures in D.C. — but Coach Hanlon soon may have to overhaul his shootout roster, a remake that might exclude, initially, Alexander the GR8, and spend time identifying who on his squad could serve as shootout specialists. We might all be surprised who they are.