NEW YORK — When he unleashed that game-winning wrist rocket from the point Monday night, Alex Ovechkin was battling a variety of forces. There were the rugged Rangers players who skated with him, the rabid Rangers fans, who counted down before each “Ovi (rhymes with Pucks!)” chant and, yes, his greatest neutralizer of all this postseason: Dale Hunter.
Ovechkin’s late goal that drew the Washington Capitals even in their Eastern Conference semifinal against New York at a game apiece got his coach off the hook for playing him the fewest minutes of his playoff career.
If the Caps go down 0-2 and Ovi doesn’t score in his paltry 13 minutes and 36 seconds of ice time — or almost five minutes less than Jeff Schultz and six minutes less than Dennis Wideman — then Hunter is the culprit in a second-guessed strategy that can only be reasoned as foolishly turning The Great Eight into Alexander The Decoy.
But they didn’t. The Caps won without Ovechkin for much of the night. Again. So who cares, right?
When a two-time league MVP is played less than a quarter of an entire playoff game by his defense-obsessed coach, that has to be a story. But is it, especially if a once-potent offensive juggernaut keeps winning ugly when it matters?
Two series into the Stanley Cup playoffs, Ovechkin might have to sit and bear it until the ultimate result changes.
“Dale, anybody who’s following our team, you see he’s coaching the situations,” said Mike Knuble, who scored the game’s first goal Monday night on a pretty tic-tac-toe play. “He’s playing certain guys. If we’re down a goal, he’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 seems counter to puck logic, but Hunter has decided his team is better off without his team’s alleged best player on the ice during crucial moments of the postseason.
So as the series heads back to Washington for Games 3 and 4, as young Braden Holtby rebounded from his worst playoff performance by stoning so many Rangers who buzzed his net in the second and third periods, let’s give it up for the true No. 1 stars of the Caps these past few weeks:
Hunter and Ovechkin, two silent loggerheads who have yet to publicly let their differences get in the way of a very riveting postseason in Washington.
“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.”
Got that, kids? Keep your eye in your be-hind and be a good teammate.
After the first period, the two-time Hart Trophy winner had played a total of 3 minutes and 33 seconds out of a possible 20 minutes. After two periods, he was reduced to a paltry 9:14, and had barely two minutes of ice time almost midway through the third period. Never mind that Nicklas Backstrom has a career playoff low in minutes and Alexander Semin was relegated to just 12:27; if Hunter is taking aim at any young gun he doesn’t feel is doing what he wants on the roster, we know who it is:
“He’s a team guy,” a diplomatic Hunter said afterward, as if he were writing for Pravda. “The one thing about [not playing] is that he has been real fresh for the power play.”
Really, fresh for the power play? Ovechkin could complete a biathlon between shifts.
“Sometimes if you’re not there you feel like you’re not in game but if you have 10-second shift or five-second shift you just have to go there and do something,” Ovechkin said. “It’s kind of hard but it is what it is.”
Winning is the greatest deodorant in sports, but it doesn’t cover up all the stench of percolating inner conflict on a team.
Eventually, Old School Ontario vs. The Russian Machine will boil over.
It could come after a shift, a practice or a series loss. If Hunter wants to remain as coach — and that’s certainly no guarantee — it better come after the Capitals stun the NHL and raise the Stanley Cup as a seventh seed in June; because that’s the only way Hunter ultimately wins that war.
Ovechkin’s benching isn’t the result of “line-matching,” like Hunter keeps saying. No, he doesn’t trust Ovechkin to be defensively responsible when the Capitals are protecting a lead. The numbers bear that out:
Ovechkin’s playoff-low in minutes for four years under Bruce Boudreau: 19:32. Under Hunter, he played a scant 15:34 in Game 5 against Boston and six minutes less Monday night.
Ovechkin isn’t decaying in Hunter’s kennel like John Erskine, Mike Knuble, Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Schultz were at times — or permanent doghouse resident Jeff Halpern. But there are clearly situations when the Capitals are short-handed, have the lead or are even tied that Hunter won’t send Ovechkin out there, essentially telling him, “I don’t feel you can help us at this time.”
Boudreau wasn’t happy with All Things Alex, but until his final season he didn’t feel he had the authority to tighten the leash; Hunter has him in a horse collar and muzzle.
Who’s winning this battle in the locker room? If Troy Brouwer’s quote from Comcast SportsNet’s Chuck Gormley is indicative — in response to Ovechkin saying he needs to have the puck when he’s gaining more speed — Hunter is leading by a mile:
“He’s got to come back [to the defensive zone] to get more speed,” Brouwer said. “He can’t be so impatient to get into the offensive zone. He’s got to make room for himself out there. We can only do so much. He can’t bottle himself up and wait for that long stretch pass with no speed. He’s got to come back and come with us as a unit.”
How long can this go on without causing a major distraction from a team with some major aspirations this spring? As long as the Capitals keep winning, that’s how long.
As long as Ovi doesn’t blow and Hunter’s strategy doesn’t backfire in a way that’s crippling to a team’s chances, all the discord in the world between them can be shelved if they keep piling up victories on somebody else’s ice.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns visit washingtonpost.com/wise.