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Washington Capitals head coach Dale Hunter watches the closing seconds of their loss to St. Louis Blues with players in Washington November 29, 2011. (MOLLY RILEY/MOLLY RILEY/REUTERS)
Washington Capitals head coach Dale Hunter watches the closing seconds of their loss to St. Louis Blues with players in Washington November 29, 2011. (MOLLY RILEY/MOLLY RILEY/REUTERS)

Hunter wields clout to bench Ovechkin, for now Add to ...

Dale Hunter, it seems, remembers those scenes from the 2010 NHL playoffs.

The ones where time and time again, Alexander Ovechkin made a solo rush down the ice against the Montreal Canadiens, desperately trying to get his Washington Capitals back in the game. Almost every time in the last three games of that first-round series, Ovechkin ran into a wall of Habs defenders and the favoured Caps lost in seven.

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When the Capitals, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, were swept in the second round of last year’s playoffs by the upstart Tampa Bay Lightning, it was a similar story. The Lightning used a superior defensive game to get the upper hand and Ovechkin used his abundant ice time to futilely try to win the game by himself. When he failed, rather than work with his teammates, Ovechkin imploded in frustration and the entire ship sank once more.

Hunter, who replaced Bruce Boudreau as the Capitals head coach early this season, has everyone talking around the NHL because he isn’t allowing the same situation to develop. His defence-first philosophy means Ovechkin is often nailed to the bench at crucial points in the game.

Under Boudreau, the least amount of ice time Ovechkin had in the playoffs in their four years together was 19 minutes 32 seconds. He is lucky to get even that much with Hunter.

But it’s working.

In four of the Caps’ last six playoff games, Ovechkin saw the ice for 17 minutes or less and they won all four. He hit a career-low on Monday with a mere 13:36, but scored the winning goal on a power play in a 3-2 decision over the New York Rangers that tied the second-round series at one a piece.

Hunter, who looks as comfortable in front of the cameras as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, even managed some humour, albeit inadvertent, when he was asked about Ovechkin’s ice-time: “The one thing about it is that he has been real fresh for the power play.”

With the best-of-seven series moving to Washington for Games 3 and 4 beginning Wednesday, the question all are asking is does Hunter give his $9-million (U.S.) man something better than third-line minutes?

It depends.

If Ovechkin is freelancing too much and defensively slack like he was in Game 1 against the Rangers, then no. If he bangs some bodies around, has the most shots of anyone in the game and is dangerous around the net like he was in Game 2, then maybe.

As for Ovechkin, he says in his own inimitable style that yep, he sure would like to be playing more, but: “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.”

Ovechkin’s body language, as noted in the many television shots of him stewing on the bench, suggests he is not quite as sanguine as he makes out. But with the Capitals so far avoiding yet another postseason meltdown, what is he going to say?

It’s the same for team owner Ted Leonsis. The entire resurgence of the Capitals in the last five years was built around Ovechkin. He became the NHL’s most exciting player and biggest attraction, even eclipsing Pittsburgh Penguins rival Sidney Crosby. It cannot be easy for Leonsis to see the focal point of all his marketing efforts playing a supporting role at best even if his team is finally showing some moxie in the playoffs. But, again, what can he say?

This only happened because Hunter is in a much different position than other NHL coaches. Boudreau never had the clout to sit Ovechkin on the many occasions he needed it, even as his star was falling in the last two seasons. But Hunter owns a junior team, the London Knights of the OHL, that just happens to be a hockey gold mine. He can tell the owner to stuff it, go back to Ontario, resume coaching the Knights and count his money.

That may still happen even if the Capitals win the Stanley Cup, which is not out of the question given the way these playoffs are going. When general manager George McPhee persuaded his buddy to take a leave of absence from the Knights to help him out, Hunter agreed to try it for the rest of this season, and then we’ll see.

For now, it’s Hunter’s way.

If the Capitals wind up losing, though, expect Ovechkin to have plenty to say.

<p> When the Capitals, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, were swept in the second round of last year’s playoffs by the upstart Tampa Bay Lightning, it was a similar story. The Lightning used a superior defensive game to get the upper hand and Ovechkin used his abundant ice time to futilely try to win the game by himself. When he failed, rather than work with his teammates, Ovechkin imploded in frustration and the entire ship sank once more. </p> <p> Hunter, who replaced Bruce Boudreau as the Capitals head coach early this season, has everyone talking around the NHL because he isn’t allowing the same situation to develop. His defence-first philosophy means Ovechkin is often nailed to the bench at crucial points in the game. </p> <p> Under Boudreau, the least amount of ice time Ovechkin had in the playoffs in their four years together was 19 minutes 32 seconds. He is lucky to get even that much with Hunter. </p> <p> But it’s working. </p> <p> In four of the Caps’ last six playoff games, Ovechkin saw the ice for 17 minutes or less and they won all four. He hit a career-low on Monday with a mere 13:36, but scored the winning goal on a power play in a 3-2 decision over the New York Rangers that tied the second-round series 1-1. </p> <p> Hunter, who looks as comfortable in front of the cameras as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, even managed some humour, albeit inadvertent, when he was asked about Ovechkin’s ice-time: “The one thing about it is that he has been real fresh for the power play.” </p> <p> With the best-of-seven series moving to Washington for Games 3 and 4 beginning Wednesday, the question all are asking is does Hunter give his $9-million (U.S.) man something better than third-line minutes? </p> <p> It depends. </p> <p> If Ovechkin is freelancing too much and defensively slack like he was in Game 1 against the Rangers, then no. If he bangs some bodies around, has the most shots of anyone in the game and is dangerous around the net like he was in Game 2, then maybe. </p> <p> As for Ovechkin, he says in his own inimitable style that yep, he sure would like to be playing more, but: “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.” </p> <p> Ovechkin’s body language, as noted in the many television shots of him stewing on the bench, suggests he is not quite as sanguine as he makes out. But with the Capitals so far avoiding yet another postseason meltdown, what is he going to say? </p> <p> It’s the same for team owner Ted Leonsis. The entire resurgence of the Capitals in the last five years was built around Ovechkin. He became the NHL’s most exciting player and biggest attraction, even eclipsing Pittsburgh Penguins rival Sidney Crosby. It cannot be easy for Leonsis to see the focal point of all his marketing efforts playing a supporting role at best even if his team is finally showing some moxie in the playoffs. But, again, what can he say? </p> <p> This only happened because Hunter is in a much different position than other NHL coaches. Boudreau never had the clout to sit Ovechkin on the many occasions he needed it, even as his star was falling in the last two seasons. But Hunter owns a junior team, the London Knights of the OHL, that just happens to be a hockey gold mine. He can tell the owner to stuff it, go back to Ontario, resume coaching the Knights and count his money. </p> <p> That may still happen even if the Capitals win the Stanley Cup, which is not out of the question given the way these playoffs are going. When general manager George McPhee persuaded his buddy to take a leave of absence from the Knights to help him out, Hunter agreed to try it for the rest of this season, and then we’ll see. </p> <p> For now, it’s Hunter’s way. </p> <p> If the Capitals wind up losing, though, expect Ovechkin to have plenty to say. </p>

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 
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