NBA free-agency tracker:

Alex Ovechkin makes the most of diminished role with Washington Capitals

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

NEW YORK – "Eight! … Seven! … Six! … Five!"

The first two periods Monday night, the fans watched the clock at Madison Square Gar

View gallery

.

Alex Ovechkin scored the game-winner midway through the third period. (Getty Images)

den. They started with 8:08 to go each time, and as they counted down, their volume went up. 

"FOUR! … THREE! … TWO! … ONE!"

Then came the crescendo – the New Yorkers' dishonoring of Washington's captain, No. 8 Alex Ovechkin.

"OH-VEE SUCKS! OH-VEE SUCKS!"

In the third period, though, the fans lost track. Only a few bothered to chant as the Rangers killed a penalty in a tie game.

And finally, as the Rangers killed another penalty shortly afterward, the players lost track, too. They left Ovechkin alone at the top of the slot, where he ripped a wrist shot the way few men can. The puck flew through traffic. "First I saw it, then I didn't see it, and then I saw it," said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

As soon as Ovechkin saw it hit the upper right corner of the net, he went crazy. He took a few quick steps, glided into the neutral zone on one leg and held his hand up to his ear.

Silence.

"Yeah," he said later, grinning. "It's kind of fun."

If only it were that easy to quiet the rest of the story. The goal gave the Capitals a dramatic 3-2 victory and tied this second-round playoff series, 1-1. But if you were looking at the ice time instead of the game time, you would have thought Caps coach Dale Hunter were leading those chants, that he felt the Great 8 was not-so-great.

Ovechkin played 13:36. Thirteen minutes and thirty-six seconds. That's the lowest total of his playoff career, lower than the 15:34 he played in Game 5 in the first round against the Boston Bruins. He never played less than 19:32 in the playoffs under former coach Bruce Boudreau.

Of course, the Capitals never advanced past the second round under Boudreau, either.

Hunter acts like it's no big deal, saying he's just rolling four lines, and why not? He's winning.

View gallery

.

Ovechkin's teammates maintain he's still their guy. (Getty Images)

In some ways, he seems like an old-school football coach, with Ovechkin as his star wide receiver – his big-play threat. Ovechkin is there when he needs him, like on the power play late in a tie game. "Every time he's on the ice, he's dangerous," Hunter said. "He doesn't need to have too much ice to score goals." But when the Capitals have a lead, as they did much of Monday night, Hunter is happy to run the ball. Instead of three yards and a cloud of dust, it's three zones and a spray of snow.

"You see he's coaching the situations," said Capitals veteran Mike Knuble. "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. I guess they can talk about it this summer after the season and figure it out. But for now, it's working, and we're going to run with it."

Ovechkin can say only so much. "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 [the regular] season. It's the playoffs. I said before you have to suck it up and play for team."

But here's the thing: The score is part of it, but only part of it. Ovechkin played only 3:33 in the first period, and Knuble didn't put the Caps on the board until the 12:20 mark. Even though the Capitals spent 2:13 killing penalties in the first, that's an absurdly low number for a superstar – a former scoring champion and most valuable player making $9,538,462 a season through 2020-21. Jay Beagle, a guy who made $512,500 this season on an expiring contract, played 7:21 in the first period. He played 19:58 in the game.

View gallery

.

Dale Hunter is rolling four lines, using Ovechkin almost sparingly. (Getty Images)

Sometimes Hunter is hard to figure. He pulled Ovechkin off the ice in offensive situations at least twice in the first period, then put him out in defensive situations at least twice in the second. Huh? If Ovechkin is a weapon offensively and a liability defensively, wouldn't it be the reverse?

Sometimes Hunter seems totally justified. Ovechkin looks awkward at best defensively. He wants so badly to attack, he leaves his end too early at times and ends up having to circle back.

Ovechkin was asked if he clearly knew what he needed to do to earn more ice time. The first thing he said: "Just score the goals." The second thing: "Play safely. When you play safely, the team and the coaches have trust in you."

Then he elaborated: "I mean, if we play in our zone, we have to play safely. In neutral zone and especially in offensive zone, you have to be creative. You can't be, like, playing safe out there. If you have opportunities to make a move and make a good play, I think for forwards, you just have to do that."

Hunter almost certainly would disagree, especially at this time of year. Most coaches don't want creativity in the playoffs, unless you're finding a new way to be gritty. They want boring, dependable puck management in the neutral zone and offensive zone.

Asked Monday morning about Ovechkin's desire to gain speed in the neutral zone, Hunter never mentioned playmaking. He talked about hitting and dumping the puck and going to the net hard.

"That's what we expect from Ovi," Hunter said. "It's a series, so you're playing the same team over and over again, so you've just got to keep working."

Even when Ovechkin does gain speed through the neutral zone, he's not that creative anyway. Early in the third period Monday night, he raced up the left-wing wall. After he entered New York’s zone, he cut to the middle – with two defensemen in front of him and a backchecker behind. He ended up floating all the way to the right wing and taking a wild shot that missed the net.

This is his patented move. The rest of the league figured it out long ago. If his opponents know it in the regular season, they sure as heck will know it in the playoffs. It's not going to work.

And while this is working now, it isn't going to work in the long term. Coach and captain are not on the same page. Hunter needs to play Ovechkin more, but Ovechkin needs to earn it.

How long can the Capitals squeak by like this? This game just as easily could have gone the other way – Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto hit two goal posts in the third period – and not using Ovechkin more might have kept the Capitals from breaking open the game earlier. Ovechkin is supposed to be a game-breaker. At least this time he came through with the game-winner.

"Ovi's our big-game guy," Knuble said. "He's got to be scoring for us to do well. It was a great moment for him, great timing, and timing, I think, is everything in this game. Having guys score at the right time and your big guy scoring and feeling great going into the next game can do a lot for you, too."

How long will Ovechkin suck it up? He's saying the right things now, and he might even believe them. But he's also receiving mixed messages – being told to sacrifice for the good of the team, but still being judged mainly by his offensive output.

"Sometimes if you're not out there, you feel like you're not in the game," Ovechkin said. "But again, if you have 10-second shift or five-second shift, you just have to go out there and do something. It's kind of hard, but it is what it is."

Once again in Washington, it depends on what your definition of "is" is.