I was sitting on my couch last night, taking in the final few minutes of the Anaheim Ducks and Washington Capitals game Tuesday night, when all hell broke lose. Not the typical kind you’re thinking, with fighting majors and misconducts being dolled out in double figures of a game whose result is no longer in doubt. Perhaps a better term, at least from a hockey standpoint, was that I witnessed “hell freezing over” at the Verizon Center in D.C. Because, for the first time that I can recall, Alex Ovechkin was benched by Head Coach Bruce Boudreau for the final few minutes of regulation with the Caps down a goal.
Ovi wasn’t happy about it. And his fantasy owners should be a bit unhappy too.
While Boudreau and a frustrated Ovechkin were exchanging unpleasantries on the bench, Nicklas Backstrom jumped onto the ice as the extra attacker – joining the 3rd line of Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich and Joel Ward, who were Washington’s best line of the night, by far – and proceeded to score the tying goal with under a minute left and the goalie pulled to send the game into overtime.
I guess the coach’s hunch was right. And maybe, just maybe, Boudreau’s new team-first philosophy would start to sink in a little further with the team’s captain.
Surprisingly, it took another two minutes into overtime before Ovechkin saw the ice again, and when he finally did, he eventually assisted on the game-winner by Backstrom, propelling the Caps to their 8th win of the season in 10 tries, by a final score of 5-4.
All’s well in the nation’s capital, right? Wrong.
Both Boudreau and Ovechkin addressed the media on Wednesday in an attempt to clear the air and move on. But Boudreau stuck to his guns, suggesting that playing performance will continue to dictate playing time in late-game situations, and that no one person is bigger than the team, even if that person is Alex Ovechkin. ”I hope the message has gotten clear from July till now, and I’m hoping we don’t change that message and we’re going to try to stay strong with it,” Boudreau said. “I think that’s what it is and that’s the only way we’re going to stay successful.”
“It doesn’t matter who I say it [to] or what I said. It looked funny on TV,” admitted Ovechkin. ”Right now it is big story, but it was just frustrating because I am a leader on the team and I want that kind of responsibility.”
The big question moving forward is, were Boudreau’s actions a one-off, or is there potentially more frustration on the horizon for Ovechkin this season?
While there’s certainly the risk that Boudreau could “lose” his superstar, or perhaps spark him, last night’s benching reflects a more telling statistical change happening to Ovechkin this season over year’s past – his overall reduction in ice-time. Ovechkin is averaging a only 18-and-a-half minutes TOI so far this season, down almost three minutes from last season. Over the past five seasons, Ovechkin’s ice-time has gone down every year – from a career-high 23:06 in 2007-2008 to 21:21 in 2010-11 to just 18:36 so far this season.
While some may argue that less could equal more, realistically you have to figure that diminishing ice-time will more likely equate to diminishing returns for the 26-year-old Russian this season. When you factor in his 85-point year last season combined with his so-so start to this season, at least by traditional Ovi standards (5 goals, 5 assists in 10 games), a point-per-game pace may in fact be the new norm for the one-time, perennial 50+ goal, 100+ point sniper.
And if Boudreau has his way, that fantasy may soon become a reality.
Do you think Boudreau’s benching will ultimately spark or sink Ovechkin? How many points do you think Ovi will finish this season with? Chime in.
Follow Dan following the NHL and fantasy hockey this season on Twitter @Dan_Berlin