I don’t even know how many times I’ve heard it this postseason: “The Capitals’ record with Ovechkin playing more than 20 minutes is X and Y, and the Caps record with him under 20 is Z and W.”
As it happens, yes, Washington are just 1-4 as a team when Ovechkin plays more than 20 minutes, and 5-1 when he’s held to less than that. Additionally, the one loss that the Caps have had when Dale Hunter has kept Ovechkin below 20 came when he got 17:34 in Game 1 of their series against the Boston Bruins, which is the sixth most ice-time Ovechkin has got.
Doesn’t make much sense that your team does worse the more one of your best players plays, but the prevailing wisdom seems to be that Hunter doesn’t trust Ovechkin too much in defensive situations:
“He’s coaching the situations. He’s playing certain guys. If we’re down a goal, (Ovechkin is) going to be our main guy. He’s going every other shift. If we’re up a goal, then Dale tends to lean on other guys. That’s the way it is,” forward Mike Knuble said. “I guess they can talk about it this summer after the season and figure it out. For now it’s working and we’re going to run with it.”
That’s reasonable enough. Far on me to hype Ovechkin up as a solid two-way player. His Corsi this season was -4.8 per 60 minutes of play, which was 7th best out of 11 forwards on the Caps with more than 50 games. Additionally, he played against the second softest competition (by Corsi Rel Qoc). Defensive miscues were a problem for Ovechkin this year, and he got a lot of practice chasing the puck.
This explanation appears to hold up: The six games where Ovechkin has seen fewer than 20 minutes are also the only six regulation games in these playoffs in which the Washington Capitals never trailed (the only game they lost was Game 1 against the Bruins, 1-0 in overtime if you’ll recall, so the Bruins didn’t actually trail in that game). Ovechkin had 28 minutes against the Bruins in Game 2. The Caps never trailed in that one, but it did go to double overtime. Ovechkin had 7 minutes in the OT, so I guess this game is the absolute exception. (But the Caps won, so…)
You will hear a lot about Ovechkin’s ice-time because that’s how Dale Hunter likes to use him. The Capitals have been tied in game score for 72% of their time in the playoffs (data gathered from NHL.com boxscores), have held the lead for 19% and have trailed just 9% of the time. Marcus Johansson has barely hit the ice in games wherein the Capitals have held a lead: as a result, his “ice-time versus team record” statistic looks much better: the Capitals are 2-3 in games where Johansson plays fewer than 17 minutes and 4-2 when he goes over.
But we mix up cause and effect here. No coach or broadcaster would prefer to have Marcus Johansson on the ice over Alex Ovechkin. Dale Hunter has a way of doing things, and he likes putting the players he trusts defensively on the ice when he’s nursing a lead. This is probably why games are so close that the Caps have played in.
Also, I dispute the effectiveness of the tactic. The Caps have held on to just 4 of their 14 leads and, as what happens when they go down a goal, the opposition catches up pretty quickly. Leads haven’t lasted long in games where the Caps have played in, which can be part attributed to goaltender variance and part attributed to the fact that their coach seems determined to not stretch a lead. It’s just once the game is tied, well, the Caps are more likely to get the lead then concede it: they’ve had the lead 14 times and trailed eight times in the playoffs.
The Caps have conceded more goals and shots per 60 minutes of even strength play when up a goal than any other playoff team but the Phoenix Coyotes, so I’m not sure if the strategy really works. It appears that Mike Knuble’s explanation runs in check with reality, and I really wish the broadcasters covering the playoffs would stop showcasing such a meaningless statistic for hours on end.