Consider Monday night’s Game 2 in a vacuum without consideration of salary, reputation or statistics, and Alex Ovechkin’s numbers made him look like a clutch third-liner and power-play specialist.
He played a career playoff-low 13:36, including 10:36 at even-strength — fourth-lowest on the Washington Capitals.
Used in such a limited role, Ovechkin looked like a $9 million role player, an offensively potent wing whose defensive liability kept coach Dale Hunter from leaning heavily on his captain and highest-paid player.
“It’s hard to argue when we’re winning hockey games,” forward Jason Chimera said. “A lot of guys, their ice time has gone down, but we’re winning hockey games. You can’t argue with that.”
Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green all saw limited action, but the Capitals managed to beat the New York Rangers 3-2 to even the series at a game apiece. And though Ovechkin scored the decisive goal, Hunter’s strategy of sitting him when nursing a lead or in a tie game is becoming difficult to dispute.
“Anybody who’s following our team, you see he’s coaching the situations,” alternate captain Mike Knuble said. “If we’re down a goal, he’s going to be our main guy. He’s going every other shift. If we’re up a goal, then Dale tends to lean on other guys.”
Those include forwards Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks and Troy Brouwer, defensively responsible players who combine to make $3.725 million this season. All played more than Ovechkin in Game 2.
But Hunter’s not coaching based on salaries or expectations. Treating players the same as far as accountability and ice time worked with London in the Ontario Hockey League, and it’s serving the Caps well now.
“I think you, as a coach, you get more respect that way,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Sometimes the guys that are working extremely hard and aren’t getting the minutes that they hope they’re getting, they would get frustrated. I think when you reward whoever’s going at that time or keeping it more even, collectively, everybody’s a little bit more happy.”
There’s a morale element that seems to be helping. Ex-forward Matt Bradley made some comments on radio last summer about former coach Bruce Boudreau not rewarding hard-working players with extra minutes in the playoffs,
That’s not happening with Hunter.
“We’re sticking to whatever we have to do. However much you play, however little you play I think that our goal is to win the game and everyone’s happy if we’re winning,” defenseman John Carlson said. “Whatever it is, he wants the best, and I think that he is a fair coach and guys thrive on that.”
Washington has won all four games in which Ovechkin has played 17:01 or less. But the danger is in the star left wing growing disgruntled.
So far, at least publicly, Ovechkin is saying the right things. Hunter called him the team’s “biggest cheerleader” on the bench when teammates are blocking shots.
“It’s the most important thing right now…. It’s the playoffs,” Ovechkin. “How I said before, you have to suck it up and play for the team.”
Teammates appreciate that kind of talk, Alzner said, though several players said they didn’t notice Ovechkin’s ice time. Keith Aucoin on Monday night had to look at the stat sheet to even know how much he played.
Buying into equal opportunity ice time, based on game situations and more, is part of Hunter hockey.
“Everybody right now just doesn’t care. Just go out there and play, work hard. Dale’s going to reward you,” Alzner said. “He knows when guys are going, when guys aren’t. Even when certain guys need to be played more than others regardless of if they’re going or not.”
Ovechkin knows what he has to do in order to get going and earn more ice. “Just score the goals,” he said. “Score goals, and play safely. When you play safely, the team and the coaches have trust in you.”
Hunter did double-shift Ovechkin during the regular season, when he played more than 26 minutes twice. But when that trust is lacking and the Caps are thinking defense first, Ovechkin finds himself plastered to the bench more often than would ever be expected for one of the NHL’s biggest stars.
“That’s the way it is,” Knuble said. “I guess they can talk about it this summer after the season and figure it out. For now, it’s working and we’re going to run with it.”