By Stu Hackel
As the Rangers and Capitals continue their second round playoff series, one player has been and will continue to be the focus of attention -- Alex Ovechkin. A few years ago, that might have been because he was the indisputable motor driving the Capitals, but now it's because he is not.
Regardless, as he demonstrated in Game 2, Ovechkin is still quite capable of swaying the outcome of a game. This goal -- the game-winner in the third period -- reminded everyone that Ovie's diminished ice time under coach Dale Hunter does not render him a non-factor.
Not too many players these days can get off a perfectly placed 55-foot wrist shot, one that eludes a myriad of shotblockers and beats one of the game's top goaltenders, but that's what he did. Ovechkin being Ovechkin, he punctuated the goal by putting his hand up to his ear, as if to say to the Madison Square Garden crowd that had jeered him all game long, "I don't hear you now." Then he gestured dismissively with a Cee Lo Green-ish "forget you" downward thrust of his hand. You have to wonder if some tiny morsel of his spite was directed at his own coach, Dale Hunter.
The reduction of Ovie's ice time is, apparently, the biggest story in Washington sports. Hunter's approach toward his captain is very simple. If the Caps need a goal, Ovie plays. If they are leading, he doesn't. For all of Ovechkin's great gifts, his defensive acumen remains the least developed. He was caught loafing a bit on the backcheck early in Game 2 on Monday -- the kind of thing that earned Nashville's Alexander Radulov a carving-up on TV on both sides of the border last weekend -- and that's all that Hunter needed to see.
Making an example of his captain is something Hunter's predecessor Bruce Boudreau was often reluctant to do. When Boudreau did bench Ovie with the Caps trailing by a goal at the end of a game in November, TV cameras caught (video) what appeared to be the Great Eight muttering obscenities about his coach. It sent shockwaves through Caps Nation.
Dealing with superstars (some of whom are known to come equipped with superstar egos) is as tricky a task as a coach has. The accepted Orwellian wisdom is that all players are treated equally, but your superstar is treated more equally than others. But when this team and its coach were under the influence of Ovechkin playing the most exciting brand of hockey since the Gretzky-era Oilers, it fell flat in the playoffs, unable to play adequate defensive hockey. Ultimately, Boudreau couldn't successfully adjust to the more demanding, defense-first, attention-to-detail hard guy role and paid the price for it, giving way to a genuine hard guy in Hunter.
Hunter doesn't care what Ovechkin thinks. He was brought in to change the team's direction and its culture. He just wants to win and he has the backing of GM George McPhee. Hunter's system puts a premium on getting back in the defensive zone and blocking shots. Even Alexander Semin is blocking shots. Alexander Semin! Ovie doesn't seem as keen about putting his trunk, arms and legs in the path of a speeding chunk of frozen vulcanized rubber, so Hunter isn't keen about giving him 23 minutes a game. Six Caps forwards logged more ice time than Ovechkin's 13:36 in Game 2. If keeping his most talented player stapled to the bench is the path to victory, Hunter's got the staple gun in his pocket.
“You have to suck it up and use the time what Dale is giving to me,” Ovi said Monday night after the Caps' 3-2 victory in Game 2 (quoted by Mike Wise in The Washington Post) “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....Sometimes you just have to put eye in your butt and, you know, play for everybody.”
Ovie's teammates may have also have had trouble adjusting to what Hunter was peddling early on -- and the Caps gained a smaller percentage of points available under him than they did earlier in the season under Boudreau -- but they bought in by the end, clamping down to squeak into the postseason and then eliminating the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins by playing a type of stifling defense that Washington fans haven't seen since the days of Rod Langway and Bengt-Ake Gustafsson. "They want to be a solid defensive team and there’s no evidence they’ve really achieved that," we wrote of the Caps when we previewed Round One. Well, now we have the evidence.
But if it goes south for Washington, if rookie goalie Braden Holtby eventually breaks down, if the timely production by the Caps' depth players dries up, if Roman Hamrlik finally runs out of gas, if they all sputter and come to a dead stop? Then the questions about how Hunter used -- or didn't use -- Ovechkin will emerge. Right now, Ovie is being a good citizen, agreeing to play his role. As long as it works, everybody's happy. If it stops working, the smiles and grudging agreement will stop, too, and the time bomb in Washington will start ticking.