The Washington Capitals will take a 1-1 playoff series against the New York Rangers back to Washington for Games 3 and 4, but the real question for the team lies in the playing time of the team's stars.
Arguably the Caps three most electric players, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, saw career lows in ice time in Game 2 against the Rangers. Ovechkin saw 13:36 of ice time while Backstrom and Semin saw 16:18 and 12:27, respectively.
The lack of ice time has been particularly alarming in recent months when it comes to Ovechkin, who is widely regarded as the Capitals' best player. Since interim coach Dale Hunter took over for former coach Bruce Boudreau, Ovechkin has seen a steady decrease in playing time.
Last week Ovechkin admitted that the decrease in playing time was getting to him. "Of course, sometimes you get angry you didn't play a lot (of) minutes. And sometimes you get angry you're not out there," Ovechkin told ESPN. "But if it's good for the team, you have to eat it."
As the season neared an end there was much speculation about what the deal with Ovechkin's playing time was. Some speculated it as a motivational technique from Hunter. Others thought Hunter may be trying to keep Ovechkin fresh for the playoffs. Some even wondered if Ovechkin wasn't healthy and the team was just trying to hide it and see what they could get from him.
Now it appears that Hunter just wants the team to play a different style of hockey than what Ovechkin brings to the table. While Ovechkin does like to lay the lumber and throw his weight around on the ice, he is not a great shot-blocking defensive presence, and that is what Hunter seems to want on the ice when the team is at even strength. Players like Jay Beagle and Troy Brouwer consistently lead the team when it comes to playing time.
Even though Ovechkin is seeing less playing time and he's not exactly thrilled about it, he has still been a great team player—and was the first player on the bench to get up and cheer when teammate Jason Chimera scored Monday night.
"Ovi is a team guy and he is cheering his guys on," Hunter told The Globe and Mail. "He knows what these guys are going through at the end of the game. They've got to go out and slide and block shots. He appreciates that."
Hunter added that one plus from the lack of ice time is that Ovechkin has been fresh for the power plays. Ovechkin's goal on Monday night came via the Caps' five on four where he was playing at the point.
Caps winger Troy Brouwer says the Ovechkin controversy is not as big of a deal as it's being made out to be. “I know guys want to play as many minutes as they can, but I hope guys understand there’s certain players for certain situations in the game,” Brouwer told LaVar Arrington and Chad Dukes on Tuesday. “And putting Ovechkin in the ice when we’re up a goal with five minutes left isn’t exactly what he’s paid to do.”
What Brouwer failed to mention was the reasoning for Ovechkin's absence on the ice many times throughout the season, including various overtimes.
If the Capitals continue to win playoff games and advance there will likely be no controversy, but if they start to fall behind expect fans to start lobbying to see more of Ovechkin, who is currently being paid $9.5 million to play an average of 19 minutes per night in the playoffs.