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Caps hope less time for stars now means more later

Friday, 11.04.2011 / 2:30 PM / NHL Insider

By Kevin Woodley - NHL.com Correspondent

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Caps hope less time for stars now means more later
Washington coach Bruce Boudreau is playing his star players less this season, because he hopes that more balance will lead to a longer run during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
A lot was made of Alex Ovechkin's reaction to being left on the bench for the final 87 seconds of regulation as the Washington Capitals came back with a late goal to send the game against the Anaheim Ducks to overtime Tuesday night -- but what about the other 35 minutes and 46 seconds?

That's how much less time Ovechkin spent on the ice -- and how much more often he was on the bench -- through the Capitals' first 10 games compared to the start of last season. Based on his current average, that's almost two full games worth of ice time in the first 10 alone.

With an average ice time of 18:36, Ovechkin is playing almost three minutes less per game then he did last season, and a whopping five minutes fewer than during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 campaigns, when he was logging more than 23 minutes a night.

Back then he ranked near the top of the NHL among forwards. After the games Thursday night, Ovechkin ranks 63rd in ice time up front.

Timing -- not total ice time -- must be everything, though, because for all the attention following Tuesday's benching, Ovechkin seems onboard with playing less. It is something that follows better defense as a focal point for the Capitals -- as long as it gives him a chance to play longer next spring.

"Of course everybody wants to play more ice time, but if team needs it I am going to play 16, 18 minutes," Ovechkin said during a two-game swing through Western Canada. "In playoffs not first two lines make results, it has to be third and fourth line. Of course, first and second lines have to score, but teams that win Stanley Cups have third line that helps score goals as well."

So do teams that come close to the Stanley Cup, something the Vancouver Canucks proved both last spring and again last week during a 7-4 win over the Capitals that included four goals from the bottom two lines. It's a lesson not lost on Washington's other top forwards, including Nicklas Backstrom, who has also seen his average ice time drop by two minutes and 45 seconds this season.

For years in Vancouver there were questions about the wisdom of top-line twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin playing less than 20 minutes a game, ironically because it was so much less than other top forwards like Ovechkin. But it hasn't kept them from winning the last two NHL scoring titles, and didn't prevent them from helping the Canucks to within one win of a championship last season.

Backstrom, who plays on a summer charity team with the Sedins in their native Sweden, believes it helped both the twins and their team last year.

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"It's a good thing because it's a long season and we're playing good right now cutting down the ice time of certain guys," Backstrom told NHL.com. "Everybody is buying into it because we have a good atmosphere in the team."

The Capitals should also have fresher legs as the season goes on.

"You do feel a little fresher the next day, actually," said Backstrom, who still ranks in the top 10 in NHL scoring with 14 points despite the reduced ice time. "It should be a good thing in April and hopefully May and June too."

Backstrom admits playing less might have been a tougher sell a few years ago.

"Obviously we knew we've been doing something wrong," he said. "It doesn't hurt to change it up a little bit, and that's something we've been talking about."

For Ovechkin, playing less is an easier sell now not because of past playoff failures, but also because the Capitals have added offensive depth by bringing in free agent forwards like Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Jeff Halpern.

"Three years ago we had different team," the Capitals' captain said. "We don't have that kind of opportunity to use all four lines and now we have it."

Ward, whose Nashville Predators were eliminated by the Canucks in the second round of last year's playoffs despite his scoring heroics, said he sees some "definite similarities" between Vancouver and his new team in Washington. 

"It's encouraging," Ward said. "I know (our top players) want to be on the ice at all times with the tremendous skill level they have. But everyone understands what the real prize is. I think guys are getting it, our minutes are balanced out, and that's what we have to do. That's how we'll have real success."

As for coach Bruce Boudreau, he was talking about balance and the key to that success long before the Ovechkin benching made national headlines.

"Every time I look at Stanley Cup winners they don't do it with two lines, they do it with four," Boudreau said in Vancouver. "Because they don't call as many penalties in playoffs it seems you need balance and four lines going, and that's what we're trying to build. We feel comfortable with our depth. If one line is not going, they don't play as much and you got three other lines that can play."

That statement barely caused a ripple. Of course that was before the line that wasn't going included Ovechkin. But whether that happens more often this season or not, it's clear his captain will be playing a lot less in the regular season, all in the hopes he makes up those minutes in the playoffs.
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I kept refreshing the page on the NHL website after the second round and I was shocked he lasted that long. I'm sure the Coyotes were pretty happy to get him. He's such a good player and he plays big in big games.

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