Alex Ovechkin played a playoff career low 13:36 in Game 2 against the New York Rangers on Monday night. His average shift time was 45 seconds, a full 11 seconds off his regular-season average. Yet he registered 10 pucks thrown at the net, seven of them on goal. He also scored the game-winning power-play goal late in the third period, quieting his MSG critics.
For many, limiting Ovechkin's ice time in such a dramatic way defies logic. Ditto that of Alex Semin (12:27) and Nicklas Backstrom (16:18) against arguably the best goaltender in the NHL, as both also plummeted to career lows.
As a team, the Capitals have made the full regression from fire-wagon hockey in the early days of Bruce Boudreau to tedium on skates under Hunter — a conservative, defensive approach that has Jay Beagle playing 19:58 in a second-round playoff game (although 3:13 of it was on the penalty kill). The stars no longer budget time for their own shifts. The games are painfully close; but five times out of nine games, they've ended with celebration on the Washington bench.
The Capitals are winning games. Dale Hunter, however, can't win.
The defense holds a late lead, and stops a one-game deficit against the Rangers from ballooning to two games? It's not Dale Hunter, it's Braden Holtby, the rookie that's posted a sterling .966 save percentage in staying undefeated after losses in the 2012 postseason.
Oh, and it's not like they can actually hold a lead — they've lost it nine times in the postseason under Hunter. In Game 2 ... well, thank goodness for goal posts.
(Holtby, by the way, is getting a lot of Ken Dryden praise for his performances. I'm thinking about another rookie: Antti Niemi in 2010, who provided the same kind of bounce-back performances. How'd that work out?)
Ovechkin's ice time is limited through line matching, throwing off John Tortorella's rotation while keeping the Capitals star player fresh for attacking zone opportunities. In the regular season, Ovechkin started 52.7 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone at even strength; in the playoffs through eight games, that number's risen to 61.3 percent (via Behind The Net). He's become the Sedins … although last night, the figures balanced out a bit overall (via JP).
Take a step back for a moment and soak in the audacity of what we've witnessed. Ovechkin is the face of the franchise. He makes $9 million per season, and that number climbs to $10 million in 2015 through 2021. The Capitals fired a coach partially because of his friction with Ovechkin over ice time; it was assumed gospel that a coach could change everything from the goal song to the time of the morning skate, but they couldn't touch Ovechkin's role.
Now, it's like Ovi's swallowed the blood of Kali from Temple of Doom and submitted to Mola Ram (Turgeon into the boards).
No public complaints. No surly leaks to the media. Hell, the NBC crew sounded genuinely stunned that Ovechkin wasn't sitting on the corner of the bench listening to Russian dub step instead of high-fiving teammates.
(There's always going to be anticipation that Ovechkin will revolt against limited ice time from a coach like Hunter. He scored the winning goal in a playoff victory in Game 2; knowing Ovechkin at this stage in this career, playing 13 minutes matters much less than succeeding in the postseason.)
"You have to suck it up and use time what Dale is giving to me," Ovi said Monday night in the visitors' locker room at Madison Square Garden. "It's most important thing right now, guys, just win the series and win the game. 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."
He added, "Sometimes you just have to put eye in your butt and, you know, play for everybody."
But again, it's not Dale Hunter figuring it out … it's playing with fire by limiting one of the game's offensive star's ice time in the playoffs.
Then there are the little lineup moves (the reestablishment of Mike Knuble) and intangible moments (his short, effective dressing room speech before OT in Game 7 vs. the Boston Bruins); those have been balanced by some bad line changes from the bench and some good fortune on the ice -- goal posts, good bounces and the like.
If it sounds like I'm making a case for Dale Hunter Hockey, I'm not. I think he found a level of redemption for his tactics in winning Round 1 … yet at the same time, it's a Joel Ward goal that validated them. I think the argument could be made that he's found a way for this team to win in the playoffs by reducing the ice time of players liable for their previous disappointments — Mike Green had six shifts in the third period, while Jeff Schultz had nine, for example.
Yet if Ovechkin doesn't score and the Rangers end up winning, there are probably fans asking for GM George McPhee to step behind the bench for Game 3.
I'm baffled. I don't know if Dale Hunter is the NHL coaching equivalent of Chance the Gardener or if he's established a new paradigm for how the Capitals are to win in the playoffs. I can't figure out if he's lucked into success or if there's a method to his madness; I feel like Frank Grimes shaking his fist at Homer Simpson. And I certainly can't figure out how he's getting away with this stuff, as McPhee and Ted Leonsis have sold a style and star system for the last seven years that Hunter has summarily rejected through his playoff coaching. Yet, he's pulling it off.
We're either watching the work of an accidental genius or someone that's a few games away from getting the golden horseshoe ripped from his hind quarters.