Last night, the Washington Capitals came back from a 3-0 deficit in the second period to beat the Anaheim Ducks 5-4 in overtime. No one is talking about that this morning. The big news isn’t that the Caps came back, but how they did it: without star winger Alex Ovechkin.
In the waning minutes, when the Caps were still down by one, Ovechkin sat on the bench. He watched the third line of Joel Ward, Brooks Laich, and Jason Chimera get the important time. He remained on the bench when Thomas Vokoun was pulled, watching linemate Nicklas Backstrom get the tap and tie the game. Overtime started, and Ovechkin remained on the pine.
Even though Ovechkin got the primary assist on Backstrom’s game-winning goal, the post-game focus was “Why was arguably the best player in the world on the bench in clutch time? Something must be wrong with him mentally.” What was mostly lost in the hoopla was the strength of Bruce Boudreau’s decision to keep Ovechkin on the bench: star or not.
When the 24/7 cameras captured the team a year ago, Boudreau took a lot of criticism. Dan Bylsma was portrayed as the calm, strong coach who commands the attention and respect of his players. Boudreau was perceived to be the go-with-the-flow coach who couldn’t get his players to do what he wanted.
Boudreau has been criticized in the past for not disciplining his stars the way some feel they should be for missing practices or poor play. Well, after last night, no one was calling Boudreau soft.
There isn’t any controversy regarding the decision. Ovechkin wasn’t playing well. It was clear it wasn’t going to be his night, so Boudreau put out the players who had been buzzing. That is the logical choice any coach would make, and Ovechkin agreed with it in his post game interview on Versus. That has become a manufactured issue.
The real story is Boudreau’s conviction. In the past, Boudreau would have put Ovechkin out on the ice no matter how bad of a game he was having. He would have believed that Ovechkin’s talent would be enough to get him the key ice time. This year, it’s different.
We’ve seen from the start the kind of balance Boudreau has been giving the lineup. He has been rolling all four lines, and ice time has been evenly distributed. Even Ovechkin, who has often in the past averaged over 20 mins a night, is averaging just 18:36 this season (which leads the team’s forwards) and was limited to 17:51 last night. Mike Green, the team’s TOI leader so far and a player who has often averaged 24+ minutes a game, is at a mere 22:45 in 2011-2012.
This “incident” is merely another sign of the team’s depth and trust. Boudreau has been spreading the ice time, and the result has been the hottest start in franchise history and a 8-2-0 record. That is a testament not only to the maturity of the team, but the growth of Boudreau as a fourth year NHL coach.
There is no controversy in the decision, or Ovechkin’s reaction to it. Great players want the puck when the game is on the line, and he is going to be upset he isn’t out there. But what last night showed more is that the Caps may have finally landed on a philosophy that could work for them: balance. Balance in ice time, balancing offense and defense, and, they hope, balancing the Stanley Cup come June.