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Did Alex Ovechkin leave for Capitals’ bench to avoid minus-1?

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy
In this photo taken with a fisheye lens, Washington Capitals right wing Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, looks on during a break in the action in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins, Saturday, March 29, 2014, in Washington
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In this photo taken with a fisheye lens, Washington Capitals right wing Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, looks on during a break in the action in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins, Saturday, March 29, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals has the chance to make NHL history this season, although it’s not the kind of history a player wants to make.

Ovechkin is going to lead the NHL in goals, as he has 48 at the moment. But he also has the worst plus/minus of any player in the League with a minus-34 at the moment, although Nail Yakupov (-33), Alex Edler (-32) and Steve Ott (-31) are in the mix.

This dubious achievement would be like catnip for Ovechkin’s critics, who already rate his defensive prowess at somewhere between ineffective and apathetic. Does it speak as much to the Capitals’ inability to compete 5-on-5 and over-reliance on the power play, where Ovechkin has 36 of his 72 points? Probably. But that’s going to mean little to those who will point to a minus-30something and label Ovechkin as a primary reason the Capitals can’t compete 5-on-5.

But here’s the question:

Has it gotten so bad for Ovechkin that he’s actually hopping to the bench on opponents’ scoring plays to avoid getting a minus?

That’s the theory put forth by Mike Milbury of NBC Sports Network on Sunday – and yes, two Milbury stories is two too many, we know – as Ovechkin left for a line change moments before Patric Hornqvist of the Nashville Predators scored on a breakaway:

“Watch him now,” said Milbury, “he gets turned defensively here. Now he’s had enough. So he’s going to try and go and get off the ice on this particular shift and let one of his teammates take the minus. The League caught him on this one and they slapped him with a minus anyway.”

Dan Steinberg of the DC Sports Bog noted this interesting viewpoint by Milbury. We don’t know if he’s right, wrong, being sarcastic or being accusatory. But the idea that a player with a minus-33 would abandon his teammates to avoid another minus this season struck us as … well, something we’ve never actually heard an NHL player caring enough to do.

So in an effort to add a little context, we looked at Ovechkin’s shift length at the time of Nashville’s second goal. Pay attention to 12:20 to 19:14 of the first:

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The total ice time for that “shift” includes Ovechkin coming out for the ensuing faceoff. He actually skated about 1:03 before hitting the bench, roughly three minutes after spending the entire power play on the ice for the Capitals. It’s one of his longest regulation shifts of the game.

Look, maybe Milbury’s right and Ovechkin quit on the play, which is what “try and go and get off the ice on this particular shift and let one of his teammates take the minus” really means. But maybe he was gassed? Maybe he didn’t have the foresight to know that a puck would go off a Capital’s skates and Hornqvist would get a breakaway? Maybe the team’s better if he’s not the D-zone anyway?

Ovechkin gets blasted for being a goal hound as much as he does for his defensive failings, but attempting to avoid a minus would be a whole new level of stat hording.

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