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Bruce Boudreau balances ice time to keep Alex Ovechkin, Caps fresh

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At the beginning of the season, Coach Bruce Boudreau made it clear to the Washington Capitals that he would reward players who performed well and worked hard. According to multiple players, he also informed the team that there would be a more even distribution of time on ice throughout the roster.

The result has been fewer minutes — and less wear and tear — on top players Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin as the Capitals have raced to a 7-0-0 start to the season.

Although seven games is a small sample size, Boudreau’s commitment to rolling four lines and defensive pairings is already apparent. No forward has skated more than 19 minutes and 4 seconds in any of the last five games, and Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin haven’t played more than 18:11 in the last three contests. The Capitals’ three key forwards have never had such low ice time concurrently in the Boudreau era.

“We’re hoping . . . that we can play them that little and have the effect in four months, in six months [where players are rested],” Boudreau said. “If you look at the model of say, Boston winning the Cup last year, they used their fourth line an awful lot and their best lines very rarely played 20 minutes. . . . There’s going to be games where you’re going to have to play, guys are going to play, 22, 23, 24 minutes, but hopefully it’s not on a consistent basis.”

Of course, Washington’s ability to keep things balanced is multifaceted, beginning with the fact that the team is winning. Change hasn’t been needed to provide a spark. Players are healthy, for the most part, and the Capitals haven’t yet trailed in a game late in the third period, which will likely lead to more time for the top six forwards. Those circumstances, along with the number of penalties, power plays and other variables will eventually have an effect.

But by managing minutes when conditions allow it, the Capitals will better preserve players’ stamina and strength over the course of a game — and possibly the season.

Of the 12 skaters who were on the Capitals’ roster for the entire 2010-11 season, six have seen their average ice time each game decreased by more than two minutes, while four others have seen decreases ranging from 1:32 to 10 seconds. There has also been a uniform drop in shift length, in part because the Capitals have been matching lines to opponents more frequently. But players say adhering to proper shift length, whether they’re focusing on matching a line or not, has become a focal point this year.

“Last year, we used to have longer shifts but we can’t do that anymore; it leads to mistakes,” Backstrom said. “There’s good energy in our team right now and that comes from when you have shorter shifts, you get everybody involved.”

For eight players who were in Washington for all of the previous season and have remained here, the average shift length has been trimmed by three to five seconds.

While that may not seem like much, in the case of someone like Ovechkin, who has four fewer seconds on his average shift and plays 20.6 shifts a game, that translates to 1:37 less ice time per game.

“You don’t need your top guys playing 20-plus minutes a night in October,” said winger Mike Knuble, who is skating an average of 15:30 this year, down 2:22 from the previous year.

As for the blue-line corps, Mike Green’s average has dropped 2:26, with a portion of that coming in less time on the penalty kill. Nearly three minutes have been shaved off John Carlson’s average as the second-year defenseman is playing an average of 1:20 less each night on the power play.

Seeing changes in ice time can be an adjustment for any player, particularly those accustomed to seeing 20 minutes or more a night. Boudreau said he hasn’t heard any complaints yet, though.

“None of the guys have said a word,” Boudreau said. “So it’s great. I’ve said this all along, whether you believe us. They all want the same thing, they want to win. If we were 0-6 and this was the thing that was happening I’m sure they would be saying, ‘Hey, play me more, maybe we’d be winning.’ But it’s not. So it’s working.”

As part of the shut-down third line, Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera have seen their average shifts per game increase. That third unit’s ability to add points (12 in seven games) combined with the offensive capability of the fourth line (10 points, all at even strength) has helped create a trickle-up effect of sorts, making a strong case for Boudreau to continue putting them on the ice.

“He said at the beginning of the season he would reward guys, and that’s what you want as a player. It keeps you on your toes,” Chimera said. “I believe if you spread the ice time out you’re going to get more out of people. The fourth line is happier, the third line is happier and while the first and second line might not be seeing as much, they’re getting their power-play minutes. . . . In the end, you get a more balanced team that relies on everyone, not just a few guys.”

Capitals notes: Boudreau said Green (ankle) will travel with the team to Edmonton and Vancouver. Boudreau added that they hope Green, who has missed two practices since suffering the injury Saturday against the Red Wings, will be able to skate Wednesday at Rexall Place. . . . John Erskine (left shoulder) and Jay Beagle (concussion) will not travel with the Capitals.

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