Ovechkin's Time on Ice Under Fire

May 1, 2012 in Playoffs

Washington Capitals Coach Dale Hunter is under the microscope for the fact that Alex Ovechkin only spent 13:36 on ice in yesterday's game two win against the New York Rangers. It was the lowest total of this postseason for the Caps' captain — by about two minutes. (Ironically, the Caps won that game too.)

To his credit, Ovechkin said the right things last night in the Caps' locker room.

"It's most important thing right now guys just win the series and win the game,” Ovechkin said. “If you gonna talk about my game time and all that kind of stuff, it's not a season — it's the playoffs. How I said before, you have to suck it up and play for team."

Hunter chimed in with his usual terseness.

"He wants to win. He'll do whatever needs be. Tonight, not too many guys could have scored that goal from way out there," Hunter said. "He hit the post tonight once too. He's got a great wrist shot. Every time on the ice he is dangerous. He doesn't need to have too much ice to score goals."

But here's the secret underlay: Ovechkin is third among Caps forward in time on ice this playoff year (19:08), behind Nick Backstrom (20:47) and Brooks Laich (19:50) — both of whom play on the penalty kill. While Ovie's TOI has been extremely uneven, his average isn't too far below his regular-season number (19:48).

The problem here is that, during the playoffs, a team's stars are supposed to play more — not less. Before tonight's game, the top-10 TOI leaders among forwards read like a who's who of NHL stars: Ilya Kovalchuk (25:09), Ryan Callahan (23:12), Henrik Zetterberg (23:05), Zach Parise (22:19), Jonathan Toews (22:17), Evgeni Malkin (22:15), Claude Giroux (22:07), Ryan Kesler (22:03), Patrick Kane (21:58), and Travis Zajac (21:53). Ovechkin's total puts him 51st on that list.

Where it matters most — scoring goals — Giroux leads the league with seven, Zajac has four, Malkin and Kovalchuk have three — as does Ovechkin. But, if you watch the Caps as a team, they're averaging 2.22 goals per game — ninth in the league. Among teams still alive in the playoffs, only the New York Rangers, who happen to be playing the Caps, have averaged fewer goals per game. Could more playing time help Ovechkin increase that total?

Hunter's madness is paying dividends in the sense that the Caps are 5-4 overall in the playoffs and this was the first time since 1994 that the Caps defeated a higher seed in the playoffs. But it makes you wonder if the Caps could have made it a bit easier on themselves if they had Ovechkin on the ice more. Last night, after they went up 2-0, maybe Ovechkin's presence would have helped the Caps pad the lead (which probably would have buried the Rangers) instead of sitting back a bit and letting New York back in the game.

At first, some questioned Ovechkin's commitment to Hunter's game plan. That is no longer an issue. So Hunter must give a little to Ovechkin — just as the Great Eight did for the coach — and put him on the ice more.

It's hard to question the fact that Hunter has been pushing the right buttons so far — but it's equally difficult to wonder if more wins will follow if Ovechkin isn't given more opportunities. The Caps sometimes play better on the road because there's less pressure and distractions. If, during the upcoming two home games, the team could focus more on the game plan — while getting more help from their captain — it seems likely that the series momentum will be firmly in their corner.

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