Alex Ovechkin’s ice time keeps shrinking in the playoffs, all the way down to a career-low 13 1/2 minutes in Game 2 of the Washington Capitals’ Eastern Conference semifinal against the New York Rangers.
Seems to be working so far.
With the teams tied at a game apiece and shifting to Washington for Game 3 on Wednesday, followed by Game 4 on Saturday, a major topic of conversation is how little two-time NHL MVP Ovechkin is playing. Despite the reduced action, Washington’s captain and leading scorer did manage to net the winning goal on a power play in Game 2.
"To be honest, it’s not even something that we notice. We don’t go down the sheet at the end of the game and say, ‘How much did ‘Ovi’ play?’ That’s just not something that we do," Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said Tuesday, a day off for Washington’s players. "You know he wants to play more, and he’s frustrated by not playing 20 minutes. But he doesn’t care — he wants to win that game. Playing 13 minutes, he goes out and scores the most important goal of the game. It doesn’t really matter how much he plays; he’s going to come up big."
No one on the Capitals has scored more goals this postseason than Ovechkin’s three. And he leads the team with six points, too.
But coach Dale Hunter is hiding Ovechkin on the bench for long stretches at a time, especially when the Capitals are trying to protect a lead.
During the regular season, the player known as Alex the Great topped Washington’s forwards by averaging 19 minutes, 48 seconds of total ice time, and 16:08 of even-strength ice time. In the playoffs, Ovechkin ranks only third, and his numbers are down to 19:08 and 15:23.
"If guys are getting upset about ice time, and that’s all you’re worrying about, then you’re off. You’re just not going to play good," Alzner said. "I’ve seen that happen to a lot of guys."
In Monday night’s 3-2 victory at New York, Ovechkin’s 10:36 of even-strength time ranked only eighth among Washington’s 12 forwards — and was nearly 6 full minutes less than Jay Beagle, for example.
"We’ve got guys like Beagle, (Jason) Chimera and (Matt Hendricks) that are looked at when we’re leading in a game to maintain that lead," forward Troy Brouwer said, "and Alex knows that, and he has to accept that."
Whether Ovechkin’s diminished role is a result of an inability or unwillingness to play the sort of safe, possession-focused, defensive-minded hockey that Hunter seeks — or a result of something else — it’s tough to argue with the results. After all, the seventh-seeded Capitals got past the second-seeded and reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in a tight-as-can-be, each-game-decided-by-one-goal series.
And now Hunter’s Capitals are even with the top-seeded Rangers.
"He’s coaching the situations. He’s playing certain guys. If we’re down a goal, (Ovechkin is) 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. That’s the way it is," forward Mike 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."
After Monday’s game, Ovechkin said: "You have to suck it up and use (the) time … Dale is giving to me. … Sometimes, if you’re not (out) there, you feel like you’re not in (the) game, but if you have 10-second shift or 5-second shift, you just have to go there and do something. It’s kind of hard."
And during the Bruins series, Ovechkin acknowledged: "Of course, sometimes you get angry you didn’t play a lot (of) minutes. And sometimes you get angry you’re not out there. But if it’s good for the team, you have to eat it."
One direct consequence of his reduced role is less action for New York defenseman Dan Girardi, who had been averaging about 27 minutes in the playoffs before playing about 20 1/2 minutes in Game 2.
"That’s the matchup we’re trying to get," Girardi said.
Asked whether he’s surprised by Washington’s strategy with Ovechkin, Girardi replied: "I don’t know much about that. You’d have to ask Dale Hunter."
That wasn’t possible Tuesday: Neither Ovechkin nor Hunter spoke to reporters at the team’s practice facility in Virginia.
When Rangers coach John Tortorella met with the media in New York, things got a little testy, but not before he responded this way when asked about Ovechkin’s paltry ice time: "I don’t worry or comment about the other team."