Less GR8 May Be Better
So partway into the second round of the NHL post-season, we have three significant surprises on our hands.
First would be the Phoenix Coyotes. Ownerless, perhaps soon to be city-less, the 'Yotes are taking it to the Nashville Predators and Vezina-nominated goalie Pekka Rinne in a big way.
Second, well, the L.A. Kings might have been a team to watch in the eyes of many for these playoffs, but nobody foresaw a magnificent 5-0 road record against good teams like Vancouver and St. Louis and a team that seems to coming together in the spring just as the Boston Bruins did a year ago.
Then, there's Alexander Ovechkin. Or should we say the incredibly shrinking Alex Ovechkin.
By getting smaller, at least in prominence measured by ice time, Ovechkin is getting greater results. The latest indication of that came Monday night when Ovechkin played 13 minutes and 36 seconds for the Washington Capitals in Game 2 against the New York Rangers. He scored what proved to be the winning goal in the third period, then sat the rest of the way as the likes of Jay Beagle, Troy Brouwer, Keith Aucoin, Jason Chimera and Matt Hendricks defended the one-goal margin the rest of the way.
This, if you know anything about the Caps, Ovechkin and the star-crossed playoff efforts of recent years, is a remarkable change of narrative.
By being less about Ovechkin, Washington is becoming more about team. It's not just Ovechkin playing a lesser role. Alex Semin (12:27) and Mike Green (18:14), too, at least when the game is one the line. Head coach Dale Hunter was a mucker, albeit a talented one, and he's turning this team over to the muckers and grinders at decisive moments. So Beagle and Hendricks now get more ice than Ovechkin and Semin. Green used to be the kingpin of the blueline corps, but now John Carlson and Karl Alzner are.
This strategy/philosophy worked against Boston in the first round, and it worked to help the Caps steal home ice advantage in Manhattan on Monday night.
Ovechkin is barely holding back his unhappiness for the way he's being used, and it's sad, in a way, to see this once freewheeling, exciting Washington team turned into a passive, trapping team.
But you have to respect Hunter for doing it his way. The cardinal rule for most coaches in pro sports these days is never to fight with the star player, but Hunter appears as though he couldn't care less what GM George McPhee or owner Ted Leonsis think of how he's using Ovechkin, let alone what the Russian star himself might think.
Maybe it's because Hunter knows the OHL London Knights are in the trusted hands of his brother, Mark, and he can return to that league and that team whenever he wants. Or maybe it's because he only wants to make this NHL gig last until the end of the season. Or maybe it's because its the only way he knows.
Doesn't really matter what his motivations are, of course. It only matters what strings he's pulling and the results.
De-emphasizing Ovechkin seems to be working, even though you can't exactly accuse Ovechkin of playing badly. Hunter just seems to want him deployed in well-rested bursts.
There was a sense late in the season that Hunter was looking at Ovechkin in a different way, but most assumed that when the playoffs came the Caps would again become Ovechkin's team. But they haven't. And it's working. That's a big surprise.