Under Dale Hunter, the Washington Capitals are in the business of winning one-goal hockey games. They have been completely transformed from the high-flying, exciting, offensive-oriented style of play under Bruce Boudreau to the conservative, grinding, defense-first mantra of Hunter and Jim Johnson. So far, it’s worked.
The Caps escaped the first round, winning the closest series in NHL history (every game decided by one goal) and are tied with the New York Rangers at one game each heading back to D.C. for two games at Verizon Center. Obviously, Hunter’s goal is to win the Stanley Cup. He doesn’t care how he does it. He, and his coaching staff, have decided that the best way to win is to keep the games close and low scoring. Every minute of a tie game is victory. But are the methods they are employing good for the team, organization, and the players?
Thus far, everyone has “bought in.” You can do that when the team is winning games and being competitive. Hunter is severely restricting ice time of several players, notably captain Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, all of whom played playoff-career low minutes in Game 2’s win.
Any time the Caps have a lead, as they did Monday night, Hunter takes them off the ice to prevent defensive miscues from his offensive stars. He’s playing his offensive players when he needs a goal (tied, or down), and playing grinding role players such as Jay Beagle (team-high for forwards 19:58 TOI) and Matt Hendricks to protect a lead. In theory, it’s a good idea. And since the Caps are winning, it looks like it’s working.
But for just about every lead the Caps gain, they eventually give it back. Nine times so far in nine games the Caps have taken a lead against their opponent, and nine times that lead has evaporated, even the two-goal lead in Game 2. It’s not until the skill players are back on the ice do the Caps secure a margin of victory. Monday night was just an example. The three goal scorers (Ovechkin, Mike Knuble and Jason Chimera) were all in the bottom six forwards in terms of total time on ice.
But a look at time on ice at even strength shows an even greater disparity. Knuble and Keith Aucoin received the least amount of even strength ice time, but the next two were Ovechkin and Semin. A full 22 percent of Ovechkin’s ice time was during the power play. That’s how little Hunter and Johnson trust Ovechkin on the ice at full strength.
For his part, Ovechkin said the right things after the game with regards to his playing time. The team won, after all. No one can complain about playing time — least of all, your captain — in the playoffs if you’re winning.
“Of course I want to be there. You just have to play for your teammates,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes you’re not out there and you’re by yourself, you have to use the chances that you have. I think I had pretty good opportunities and in the second I hit the post. After that, my shift was not that good. But I used what Dale gave me and it worked. We’ll see how it goes.”
We’ll see how it goes. Perhaps the fewer minutes at even strength will mean fresher legs for power plays and future games. But Ovechkin knows the emphasis now has to be “just win.”
“It’s most important thing right now, guys, just win the series and win the game,” Ovechkin continued. “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.”
Ovechkin was obviously elated by his third period goal, cupping his hand to his ear as if to say to the MSG crowd, “I can’t hear you,” a la Hulk Hogan. But perhaps some of that was directed toward the bench as well.
One of the NBC Sports commentators described Ovechkin as the “league’s most expensive decoy,” after praising the captain for his selflessness in sacrificing ice time for better defenders. It’s almost as if they’re making Ovechkin an honorary Canadian for all his sacrifice.
This isn’t solely a case of “line matching,” as Hunter has said on several occasions. This isn’t even really hiding a player he thinks does more damage than good defensively. It’s a philosophy that this team isn’t good enough to win playing straight up, and every lead needs to be protected as if killing a penalty. It’s akin to playing four corners offense in basketball, or prevent defense in football. It’s a recipe that can work for a short time in the playoffs (ask the New Jersey Devils).
But it’s not a strategy for long-term success, benching your most-skilled players any time you have a lead. Maybe Mike Knuble said it most succinctly in the winning dressing room Monday night.
“Dale, anybody who’s following our team, you see he’s coaching the situations,” Knuble said. “He’s playing certain guys. If we’re down a goal, [Ovi’s] 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. For now it’s working and we’re going to run with it.”
It’s not the how, it’s how many. As long as you win.
*Published quotes were used for this post.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.