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Does Washington's Penalty Kill Need More Alex Ovechkin?

Apr 16, 2010 – 7:05 PM
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Adam Gretz

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Whenever there's a question about what the Washington Capitals can do to improve themselves the safe answer is almost always "more Alex Ovechkin!"

So why not with this, too?

Even as the top seed in the Eastern Conference and owners of the Presidents' Trophy, the Capitals entered the playoffs with at least a couple of questions about the makeup of their team, and whether their perceived shortcomings will cut their postseason run short. Specifically: goaltending and the penalty kill. Tomas Plekanec has already made his thoughts known about where Jose Theodore stands among the NHL's elite between the pipes, while Washingon finished the regular season killing just 78 percent of its penalties, a number that placed it 25th in the NHL, and second-worst among all playoff teams (only Nashville was worse).

During Thursday's 3-2 overtime loss to Montreal in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinals series, the Capitals gave up one power play goal on four attempts, thanks to a rocket of a shot off the stick of Mike Cammalleri midway through the first period.

How can Washington fix the problems on the penalty kill? How about by using its best player, Ovechkin, more often in shorthanded situations. Crazy thought, right? Maybe. But perhaps not.

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Here's a quick rundown of how often Ovechkin has played on the penalty kill over the first five years of his career.

Alex Ovechkin: Shorthanded Ice Time By Season
Year
Shorthanded Ice Time Shorthanded Ice Time Per Game
2005-06 65:52 0:48
2006-07 16:20 0:11
2007-08 13:09 0:09
2008-09 73:25 0:55
2009-10 4:14 0:03

Obviously, it hasn't been done all that much, but it has been done. But is it worth the risk, and do the potential positive benefits outweigh the potential negatives?

Nobody is ever going to confuse Ovechkin with Jere Lehtinen or Mike Peca when it comes to defensive zone prowess (and, hey, I'll admit that I've been as critical of Ovechkin's play in his own end as anybody in the past). But, there are a lot of different ways to play team defense and keep your opponent from scoring in the NHL.

One such way: dominate possession and make sure the other team never touches the puck. They can't score if they don't have it (unless Marc Bergevin or Keith Ballard happen to be playing for your team). There are few players -- if any -- in the NHL that can control the puck like Ovechkin. He could probably kill 10-20 seconds, or more, on his own by simply dangling around people, and with four goals in just 174 shorthanded minutes in his career, would also be a threat to give your team a quick boost -- and at the same time demoralize your opponent -- by contributing a shorthanded goal at any given moment.

We don't have that much to look at, but the most Ovechkin ever played on the penalty kill in his career was the 73 minutes and 25 seconds he played last season (nearly a minute per game). That was also the highest ranking (17th ... still not great, but better than what we've seen) the Capitals have had in shorthanded situations over the past five years. Maybe it's a coincidence. Maybe it's not.

By giving him more shorthanded time you're also asking him to do one of two things: 1) Play more minutes overall (he already logs close to 22 minutes per game, top-five among all forwards) or 2) Sacrifice some time on the power play or at even strength, when he would be at his most dangerous in terms of providing offense. Of course, with a fully stocked arsenal of offensive firepower (seven 20-goal scorers, three 30-goal scorers and two 40-goal scorers) would the offense really suffer that much if you gave him an extra shift or two on the penalty kill?

You're also running a greater risk for injury. Penalty killers often times have to put themselves in a position to block shots, and blocking shots -- or even getting hit with shots -- can lead to penalty killers getting hurt. Nothing could end a potential Cup run faster than an Andrei Markov blast to the leg.

So, yes, that's a lot of downsides, and, no, it's not without risk. And because of that, maybe it's not something you want to do -- or need to do -- on a regular basis over the course of an entire season, or even an entire postseason. But you're not going to win hockey's holy grail without taking some risks, and perhaps this is one that is occasionally worth taking.
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