Three months ago, Dino Ciccarelli was asked what he expected from Dale Hunter in his first stint behind an NHL bench.
The former Capitals forward didn’t mince words.
“Everyone is going to get an opportunity to play, and the top guys are going to play a lot,” Ciccarelli said. But “it doesn’t matter if you’re making $100,000 or $10 million, it’s not going to affect his decisions.”
Fast forward to last night’s 1-0 loss to Philadelphia, a costly defeat that left Washington a point out of eighth place with 17 games remaining. Alex Ovechkin sat on the bench for nearly seven minutes in the second period of a one-goal game.
Afterward, both the coach and the player insisted the reason was line-matching and not a benching.
“Guys,” Hunter said in the postgame news conference, “it’s not a benching. Maybe he missed a shift. Guys, I was matching lines.”
Maybe he was; Hunter is known for chasing favorable matchups.
But I’m going with Ciccarelli on this one. Seems to me Hunter is too smart a hockey man to have allowed Philadelphia’s Peter Laviolette to coach his bench, too.
The gap in Ovechkin’s playing time occurred right after his offensive-zone giveaway contributed to Eric Wellwood’s decisive tally, a costly miscue the Capitals’ captain owned up to after the game. Ovechkin also failed to block Pavel Kubina’s slap pass to Wellwood.
You know what Hunter doesn’t consider to be acceptable? Giveaways and half-hearted attempts to block pucks, that’s what.
“Just don’t turn it over, you know?” Hunter said. “Be careful what you do with the puck. Make sure you look before you pass.”
As a result, Ovechkin finished the game with 16 minutes 49 seconds for the entire game. That was less ice time than Matt Hendricks and about three minutes below Ovechkin’s season average.
“People make mistakes out there,” the coach added. “It’s what you do after.”
Ovechkin was indeed a threat in the third period.
After recording one scoring chance through the first two periods, he had three in the third, according to colleague Neil Greenberg. Ovechkin also knocked down Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds with an open-ice shoulder check and blocked a shot blocked off the stick of Erik Gustafsson.
It was, in other words, precisely the type of inspired performance you’d expect from a former two-time league MVP, especially given the precarious spot in which his team finds itself. And if the Capitals are going to rally and get into the postseason, it was exactly what they’re going to need from Ovechkin every period the rest of the way.