While the Washington Capitals clung to a one-goal lead, Alex Ovechkin was glued to the bench. For Game 4’s final 5:50, the highest-paid player on the team and a guy once referred to as one of the best in the world couldn’t get onto the ice.
Ovechkin’s totals included just 15 seconds of ice time in the final 14 minutes and 1:58 in the entire third period. And no explanation for the captain from coach Dale Hunter, even though he didn’t seem to need one.
“I don’t think he had to tell me something about this. Of course I want to be out there, but it’s his decision, and I can appreciate guys for how they play, and we win the game,” Ovechkin said Friday. “It’s the most important thing. It doesn’t matter how many minutes I play. Of course, I want to be there, but it’s his decision.”
Hunter didn’t even want to say it was a hard decision.
“It’s not a decision. It’s just your game plan what you go into,” he said. “You’re matching lines.”
It would have been hard to envision a winning game plan that included benching a $9.5-million superstar, but it worked. The Caps got big blocked shots from the likes of Jay Beagle and company and held on to beat the Boston Bruins 2-1 to knot the best-of-seven first-round series at two games apiece.
“Of course I understand and accept it, I want to be out there, but again it’s his decision, but we’re not going to be talking about it because it’s not time for this,” said Ovechkin, who finished the game with 17:10 of ice time. “We win the game, it’s most important thing right now. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to play 10 seconds or five seconds, most important thing is [the] team result.”
Hunter loves to hard-match his lines to get favorable matchups, and coaches like Winnipeg’s Claude Noel and Philadelphia’s Peter Laviolette admitted during the regular season that they were able to control Ovechkin’s ice time with their own choices of whom to put on the ice.
In this case, the Caps’ coach said the Bruins kept turning to Patrice Bergeron’s line, prompting his call to go with more defensive-oriented forwards.
“Sometimes, some lines get short-changed a bit,” Hunter said. “They do whatever it takes to win the game.”
But it’s not as much lines getting short-changed as players. Ovechkin’s linemates saw plenty of the ice in the third period. Brooks Laich took nine shifts and Marcus Johansson took eight, while Ovechkin finished with four, including one for two seconds and another for 13 seconds.
Hunter and his staff’s third-period management included a hodgepodge of lines and combinations that were almost five-man penalty-killing units.
“When we’re up in the game like that, some guys are used to playing more than others, and I think that’s what they did. It was nothing weird or wrong with that,” Johansson said. “We want to win the game, and that’s maybe how you have to coach to do it.”
Johansson said he didn’t notice Ovechkin not playing much down the stretch, noting that it surely would have been a different story if the Caps needed offense.
“I think Ovi knows that if we’re down, he’s the first guy to play,” Johansson said. “I didn’t really think about it because I was into the game too much.”
Hunter appreciated how into the game Ovechkin was despite not being on the ice in the crucial moments, like when Beagle saved the game by lying down in front of shot from Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk.
“Ovi, he’s a team guy. He’s rooting for the guys on the bench,” Hunter said. “When Beags goes down there, he’s the first one to jump up and yell. You appreciate what guys like that do, and that’s why he’s a real team guy.”
Ovechkin was on the ice for Boston’s lone goal scored against Braden Holtby on Thursday night, and his defensive coverage cost the Caps some chances, especially in the second period. But Hunter praised Ovechkin for his defensive play and credited him with creating the two-on-one that led to Johansson’s goal 1:22 into the game.
Asked to assess his performance in Game 4, Ovechkin flashed a smile.
“Well, like, we win,” he said. “So I play good.”
• Stephen Whyno can be reached at email@example.com.
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