Spare the rod and spoil the child.
Washington Capitals head coach Dale Hunter made the right call in limiting superstar Alex Ovechkin's minutes in Sunday night's meeting with the Philadelphia Flyers following a costly mistake that led to the game's only goal. Where Hunter erred was covering up for his forward following the game.
Usually good for 18 to 20 minutes a night, Ovechkin had logged just 8 minutes, 12 seconds of action over the first two periods of Sunday's 1-0 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. He also sat on the bench for about seven minutes straight in the second period after his costly turnover and lackluster effort in the defensive zone led to the Flyers' game-winning goal.
After Ovechkin gave the puck away, Philadelphia moved up ice and worked it around the zone. The puck eventually worked its way out to the right point and onto the stick of Flyers defender Pavel Kubina. The blueliner then wound up for a shot and Ovechkin tightened up in a lazy attempt to block the disc, pulling his body and stick into a vertical stack. Instead, he gave Kubina a wide lane to fire the puck and it was redirected by Philadelphia's Eric Wellwood for the deciding goal.
"I tried to make a play in the offensive zone and it cost us a goal. It was my mistake," Ovechkin said.
Ovechkin took just one more shift in the second period before Hunter let his biggest weapon out of the doghouse. The 26-year-old Russian logged seven shifts over 8:37 in the third and created some quality chances. He was credited with a team-high seven shots and another six hits by game's end, but still spent under 17 minutes on the ice. That resulted in Washington being shut out for the second straight game, leaving it a point behind Winnipeg for the eighth seed in the East heading into Monday.
Hunter did the right thing in sitting Ovechkin. After all, Bruce Boudreau made it a habit of sticking with the former Hart Trophy winner through the good and the bad and he is now the head coach in Anaheim. What Hunter failed to do was put the accountability on his high-priced forward afterward.
Hunter, who took over for a fired Boudreau on Nov. 28, said after the game that Ovechkin's limited minutes were because he was matching lines and opted against putting out Ovechkin against Philadelphia's unit of Jaromir Jagr, Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell. After the question of a possible benching was asked again, Hunter quickly defended his winger.
"Guys, it's not a benching. Maybe he missed a shift," Hunter said. "Guys, I was matching lines. He played and he played a lot in the third and he had his chances and their goalie stood tall."
Blame is going to fall on Ovechkin when the Capitals struggle. Signing a massive 13-year deal worth $124 million dictates that and it is Hunter's job to deflect unfair criticism away from his star. But when the head coach makes such an obvious statement during the game and then backtracks afterward, it does the locker room no good.
Ovechkin reached at least 50 goals in four of his first five NHL seasons, with the lone exception being a 46-goal campaign in 2006-07. However, he had career lows last season with 32 goals and 85 points over 79 games and hasn't had much of a bounce back this season. No. 8 has only three goals in his past 10 games and has disappointing totals of 26 goals, 23 assists and 49 points over 61 contests.
Something isn't right with Ovechkin. Maybe it is the money. Maybe he is hurt.
It is Hunter's task to get spark from Ovechkin and a benching would certainly be a big start.
To be fair, Ovechkin did have a solid third period on Sunday and Hunter can only hope that carries over despite his handling of the situation with kid's gloves.
"People make mistakes out there. It's what you do after and in the third period he had his chances and their goalie was good tonight," Hunter said.
When asked what his coach said to him after the Flyers' goal, Ovechkin responded, "He said you can't do that, so I know. I tried to make a play and I don't want to give them a chance to score, but it is what it is."
What is fact for the Capitals right now is that the expected contenders are in danger of missing the postseason for the first time in five years, but a weak showing by the rest of the Southeast Division has Washington just five points back of the first-place Florida Panthers. Five points is the difference between ninth place and the third seed.
That doesn't seem like such a big task for the Capitals, but they'll certainly need Ovechkin to get going first. It's time for the superstar to step up.