Guarantee only as good as player who makes it

ByJohnette Howard ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 13, 2015

NEW YORK -- Before pedestrian cornerbacks and B-list NBA forwards got into the act, the examples of athletes guaranteeing a win or calling a shot used to be rare, pristine things. Part of the romance was that only the greats dared try it. Remember Babe Ruth pointing to the stands to signal he was about to hit a home run? Think of young Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali) telling skeptical reporters that he would beat fearsome heavyweight champ Sonny Liston -- and then doing it to shock the world.

Joe Namath was famously nursing a scotch by a pool in Miami when he predicted the underdog Jets would upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

Almost as famously -- at least in New York -- Mark Messier promised that the long-suffering Rangers would win Game 6 against the more decorated New Jersey Devils in the 1994 Eastern Conference finals. He then backed it up with a third-period hat trick that won the game that led to the Game 7, which ended in double overtime with one of the most famous radio calls in Rangers history: "Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!"

The anticipation is almost always as terrific as the sight of someone actually delivering.

Even now, video of Messier backing up his guarantee sends chills down the spine.

The Rangers went on to break their 54-year-old drought and win the Stanley Cup. If you notice, all of those players were stars who had the ability, swagger and talent for pulling off the amazing. And Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, the NHL's regular-season leading goal scorer with 53, is all of that too -- though he's careening perilously closer to Patrick Ewing territory than Messier country when it comes to making guarantees, like his latest prediction that the Capitals will beat the Rangers in Game 7 on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden after squandering a 3-1 lead in this series.

Ovechkin is already 0-for-1 in guarantees in this series alone, if you count the taunt the NBC TV microphones caught Ovechkin saying to Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist after barreling in and scoring a remarkable goal against The King in Game 1.

"All series, baby. All series," Ovechkin boasted.

After another goal in Game 2, Ovechkin has been held scoreless the past four games.

But Lundqvist? He is 5-0 with a miniscule 0.80 goals against average in his last five Game 7s. The Rangers have won nine straight elimination games at the Garden dating back to 2008, an NHL record. Rangers winger Chris Kreider, looking ahead to Wednesday's game, told the New York Post on Tuesday: "Hank's annoyed today. Which is always a good sign."

Like Ewing, Ovechkin doesn't seem to have a squelch switch. Which is kind of charming, really. Belief springs eternal no matter how often he's proven wrong.

Overall, Ovechkin isn't great when it comes to other big-game guarantees in his career. He was wrong guaranteeing a Game 4 win in 2011 against Tampa Bay before the Lightning finished off the sweep. He was half-wrong, half-right in 2009 when Washington temporarily staved off elimination against Pittsburgh with a Game 6 win he guaranteed, only to lose the series in Game 7. And he surely can't forget how the Rangers eliminated the Caps in the postseason in 2012 and '13 -- also in Game 7s.

A lot of Ovechkin's guarantee-itis must spring from frustration as much as bravado.

He's a superstar, and yet he has never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs with the Caps. That ain't good.

Ewing knew what that kind of abject disappointment was like. His Hall of Fame career coincided with the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan winning six titles. By the time Ewing quit, he'd been right once (in '94, when he said "See ya Sunday, fellas," before a Knicks Game 6 playoff win) but wrong at predicting the Knicks would win their Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Pacers in 1995, and again in 2000. In hindsight, Ewing might have been better off downsizing to some version of Tug McGraw's mantra for the '73 Mets ("Ya Gotta Believe") or -- failing that -- just tackling John Starks when he was going buck wild in Game 7 of the '94 NBA Finals. Because then-Knicks coach Pat Riley never told Starks, "You're killing us." Starks shot the Knicks out of the game by going 2-for-18, including 0-for-10 in the fourth quarter. And Houston won the title.

By the time Ewing's career ended, he never did tap into the hard-won restraint that Rex Ryan finally acquired after guaranteeing his Jets were going to win a Super Bowl again and again -- only to not, not, not. Ryan finally got out of the guarantee business. But not Ewing. Even when he was an assistant coach for the Orlando Magic in 2009, Ewing couldn't resist. He guaranteed the Magic would beat the Celtics in a Game 7. Hearing that, then-Celtics coach Doc Rivers cracked: "I've been on those Knicks teams where he had some predictions.

"The Patrick prediction makes me feel better."

Ovechkin is teetering on the same precipice of being extravagantly, belligerently, irredeemably wrong. Not that he cares. In baseball, when you strike out four times in a game, they call it a Golden Sombrero. In the NHL, they conjure up names like Ray Bourque and almost pity you until you hoist a Cup, as Bourque finally did after getting out of Boston and playing out his career with Colorado.

Regardless of whether the Russian star's guarantee is proven right or wrong Wednesday night, he has heaped even more drama on what was already going to be a terrific Game 7.

The Capitals outshot the Rangers an astonishing margin of 70-23 in the final two periods of Game 6 and still didn't win. If the Caps can do that again, you'd think they have a terrific chance of finally moving on.

But Ovechkin should know, perhaps better than anyone, that nothing is really guaranteed.

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