Penalty Minutes: Ovechkin nearing odd place in NHL history

While he has a league-best 48 goals, Alex Ovechkin is last in the NHL with a minus-36 rating.

Bob DeChiara/Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe Dale Hunter had it right about Alex Ovechkin.

With six games left in the season, Ovechkin is on the verge of becoming the first player in NHL history to lead the league in goals (he has 48, nine more than the next highest scorer) and also to finish last in plus/minus. The Capitals right wing owns a minus-36 rating, minus-3 worse than any other player in the league, meaning that he has been on the ice at even strength for 36 more goals-against than goals-for. Shorthanded goals also count as a minus, as was the case for Ovechkin on Tuesday when Dallas scored its final goal in a 5-0 win over Washington. Ovechkin went minus-2 that night.

In coaching the Capitals for the final 60 games of the 2011-12 season to a 30-23-0-7 record, Hunter limited the time on ice of Ovechkin more than any coach has done in Ovechkin’s nine NHL seasons.

That season marked the only one in which Ovechkin averaged under 20 minutes per game of time on ice (19:48). He finished minus-8 that season but only minus-1 in the 60 games while Hunter served as coach.

The reduced role continued into the Stanley Cup playoffs when Ovechkin, comparatively speaking, played even less than he did during the regular season. He averaged 19:51 per game in 14 playoff games, but were it not for six overtime games (including one double-overtime game and a one triple-overtime game), he would have averaged far less. In Washington’s eight non-overtime playoff games that year, Ovechkin averaged 17:10.

Despite the decent success that Hunter enjoyed in his short stint –Washington, as the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, upset No. 2 seed Boston and took the top-seeded New York Rangers to seven games in the second round — he, in large part, did not return as coach because of the reduced role that he gave Ovechkin.

What’s puzzling is that whatever deficiencies Ovechkin might have defensively –NBC analyst Mike Milbury accused him of trying to sneak off the ice to avoid a minus in a 4-3 shootout loss to Nashville on Sunday –he has played well defensively in the past. In 2009-10, he finished plus-45 and the following season he went plus-24. Even last season, he was plus-2.

Perhaps Ovechkin once again is suffering from an Olympic hangover, as he did in 2010. As the host country, his Russian team bombed at the 2014 Sochi Games, failing to medal, and Ovechkin, the face of the team, recorded one goal and one assist in five games.

Since returning, even strength goals have proved elusive for the three-time Hart Trophy winner to come by. He failed to record one in the entire month of March for Washington, the longest stretch of his career.

"We do rely on (the power play) a lot and we need to rely on it because power play and penalty kill gets you through games, gets you through playoff series, if you make it," the Capitals’ Troy Brouwer said following the Nashville loss in which Washington went 2-for-4 on the power play, "but at the same point we’ve got to be able to function 5-on-5 and not consistently being minus 5-on-5 night-in-and-night-out."

It all begs the question as to whether Ovechkin, with 22 of his goals coming on the power play, has morphed into something of a power-play specialist — hockey’s equivalent of a designated hitter in baseball. Consider that Ovechkin and Boston’s Jarome Iginla each have 26 even-strength goals but Iginla is plus-34 –a swing of 70 more even-strength goals-for than Ovechkin.

It’s looking increasingly unlikely that Washington will qualify for the playoffs, as the Capitals are winless in their past four (0-2-2). If the Capitals miss the playoffs for the first time since Ovechkin’s second season, there could be changes in Washington.

If coach Adam Oates does not return, one can only wonder if his successor will revert to Hunter’s plan when it comes to using Ovechkin.

Trade deadline acquisitions don’t always pan out the way teams hope but Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin looks like he’s one of the big winners as a result of his acquisition of wing Thomas Vanek from the New York Islanders.

Montreal still ranks 20th in the NHL in scoring at 2.52 goals per game but thanks to one of the hottest lines in the league, the Canadiens are surging at 8-2 in their past 10 games.

The diminutive David Desharnais (5-foot-7, 170 pounds) centers the line with 6-2, 217-pound U.S. Olympian Max Pacioretty on the left and the fleet 6-0, 217-pound Vanek on the right. In 68 games, Pacioretty already has a career-best 35 goals, ranking him sixth in the NHL, and Desharnais, with 15 goals, is one off his career high.

Over the past 10 games, Vanek has seven goals and four assists, Desharnais has three goals and eight assists and Pacioretty has five goals and four assists.

Come playoff time, the scoring that line provides will help the Canadiens to pose more of a threat to win a round or two — the obvious obstacle being East-leading Boston, which seems to have forgotten how to lose in the past month. The Canadiens are tied with Tampa Bay for second place in the Atlantic Division, although the Lightning have played one less game.

"I think we’re in battle mode," Pacioretty told the ‘Montreal Gazette’ of the Canadiens’ recent play on the road. "We’re in playoff mode. We understand how important these games are, not just in the standings, but to build up our confidence and to build some momentum."

If the Canadiens can get by Tampa Bay in the postseason (the two appear to be a lock to face off in the first round), then what is sure to be another epic clash with the Bruins in the second round would await. At that point, Pacioretty, Desharnais and Vanek could face the ultimate test in the form of Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara and company.

Hockey fans can only hope.

If he goes scoreless the rest of the season, Dany Heatley would finish with the lowest goal output of his career with 12.

Is Wild wing Dany Heatley at the end?

For the first time in his 861-game career, the 33-year-old was a healthy scratch on Saturday as the Wild defeated Phoenix 3-1 in what represented something of a must-win situation for the Wild, who entered the game slumping badly. Heatley sat out again on Monday as Minnesota defeated Los Angeles 3-2.

Prior to those back-to-back wins, the Wild had won just three times in its previous 12 games (3-5-4), a situation that began to endanger their playoff chances. Minnesota remains in possession of the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference. However, the Wild are not out of the woods yet. They are up four points on ninth-place Phoenix with each team having six games remaining (a regulation loss in that game on Saturday would have left them tied at this point).

After the trade deadline when the Wild acquired wing Matt Moulson from Buffalo, Heatley, who became the first player in six years to record back-to-back 50-goal seasons in 2007, was relegated to the fourth line. But now he can’t even get on the ice.

It appears that the final straw for coach Mike Yeo was a five-game stretch in which Heatley went a combined minus-7 and totaled only two shots.

The story of Heatley’s physical decline is a sad one. It began with the tragic car accident in September 2003 that ended up leading to the death of his friend and Atlanta teammate Dan Snyder. During the 2004-05 lockout, Heatley suffered a serious eye injury. His 2012-13 season was cut short by shoulder surgery. Neglect has contributed to the 33-year-old’s issues.

If he fails to score for the remainder of the season, he will finish with a career-low 12 goals. Even in 2003-04 when he was limited to 31 games because of a torn ACL he suffered in the accident, he finished with 13 goals.

Wild coach Mike Yeo told reporters the situation is a game-to-game one.

"We’re not done with him," Yeo said. "We’re going to need him again."

For his part, Heatley is saying the right things.

"It’s not a good feeling," he told the reporters who cover the Wild, "but at the same time, I’ll stay ready and be ready if they need me again."

With only a few games left and the Wild on a winning streak, it’s possible Heatley might not get in for the rest of the regular season. The playoffs could be different. He does have 57 points in 66 career playoff games but none since 2011.

Heatley, who is in the final season of a six-year, $45-million deal, will be a free agent in July. At this point — unless he finishes with a flourish — one can only wonder what Heatley’s prospects will be for finding a contract next season.

1. Boston

The Bruins’ last regulation loss came on March 1 to Washington by a 4-2 score.

2. St. Louis

The Blues are going neck-and-neck with the Bruins for the Presidents’ Trophy, just one point behind. Each team has seven games left.

3. Anaheim

With 39 goals, Corey Perry is one away from his second 40-goal season.

4. Colorado

The Avalanche have won four straight to take back second place from Chicago in the Central Division. The team that finishes second earns home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

5. San Jose

The Sharks have posted the seventh 100-point season in franchise history. All of them have come since 2003-04.

26. New York Islanders

Right wing Kyle Okposo sits three goals shy of hitting the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career.

27. Calgary

The Flames had the unfortunate luck to be the team that snapped Toronto’s eight-game losing streak. The Flames fell 3-2 on the road on Tuesday.

28. Florida

Since trading Tim Thomas at the deadline, the Panthers are 4-10-1.

29. Edmonton

The Oilers have been outscored 29-12 in their past six games. They’re 1-5 in those.

30. Buffalo

Coach Ted Nolan received a deserved contract extension on Monday.

Each of these teams are fighting for their playoff lives in their respective conferences. The Coyotes, by virtue of a costly 2-1 shootout loss at home on Tuesday against Winnipeg, fell behind Dallas for the final wild-card spot in the West. Both Phoenix and Dallas are tied with 85 points but the Stars have played one fewer game. In their maiden voyage in the East, the Blue Jackets are clinging to the final wild-card spot with 83 points. They have one more point than ninth-place Toronto, though Columbus has two games in hand on the Maple Leafs. The Coyotes, with No. 1 goalie Mike Smith hurt, are limping towards the finish. Coach Dave Tippett has scratched veterans Mike Ribeiro and Derek Morris in recent games. Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets are looking to qualify for the playoffs for only the second time in their history (2009 was the other; they were swept by Detroit in four games). Columbus has suffered through more than its share of injuries lately — those on the blue line especially decimated them coming out of the Olympic break — but they are starting to get healthy. For many of their players, these meaningful games down the stretch represent unchartered territory.

Oft-injured Red Wings center Darren Helm has 10 goals in 34 games played this season.

In a 4-2 win over Toronto, Helm scored his eighth, ninth and 10 goals of the season in his 34th game. The oft-injured center logged just 11:56 of time on ice and finished plus-1 with one hit, one blocked shot and went 0-for-7 on faceoffs. That last stat might account for why Helm was on ice for both of the Maple Leafs’ even-strength goals. As the banged-up Red Wings look to hang on to one of the East’s final two wild-card spots, they’re going to need contributions from everywhere and Helm’s qualified as just that.

The 37-year-old defenseman scored the game-winning goal at 16 seconds of overtime on Monday to complete the biggest comeback in Ducks’ franchise history, 5-4 over Winnipeg. The Ducks trailed 4-0 with three minutes left in the second period before rallying. The goal was Robidas’ first since Nov. 26 — which happened to come against Anaheim when he was playing for Dallas. He broke his leg three days after that game and missed most of the next four months. The Ducks acquired the veteran at the deadline to help bolster a young defense as they vie to win the Pacific Division. Robidas logged 23:04 against Winnipeg, finished plus-1 with two penalty minutes, three shots, one hit, two blocked shots and a giveaway.

In a 5-0 home loss to the Rangers on Sunday, the trio of forwards was on ice for shorthanded goals in both the second and third periods. Hall finished minus-2 while Perron and Gagner each finished minus-3, as they logged 20:33, 15:25 and 15:20, respectively.