October 31, 2014

Alex Ovechkin benched but Boudreau’s decision pays off

Accountability.  We heard that word tossed around a lot during the off-season and pre-season with regard to the Washington Capitals.  The most prevalent theme was that until copious amounts of that intangible was applied, the Caps would never grow into the championship-caliber team so many think they have the talent to be.

Caps Head Coach Bruce Boudreau during a practice at Kettler Iceplex (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Caps coach Bruce Boudreau is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.  Since the ascension of Alex Ovechkin, Boudreau has been accused of coddling his star players by media and former players alike.  Finally, Boudreau put his foot down last night in a dramatic 5-4 overtime win over Anaheim, and the Internet blows up like he shot someone.

Let’s re-cap:  With 1:27 left in last night’s game, trailing 4-3, Boudreau called time out on an offensive zone draw and pulled goalie Tomas Vokoun to draw up a play with the extra skater.  His team huddled around him at the bench and at the end of the time-out, Boudreau sent his third line of Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich and Joel Ward, plus center Nicklas Backstrom and defensemen Dennis Wideman and John Carlson.   No Alex Ovechkin.  No Alexander Semin.  No Marcus Johansson.  But mainly, no Alex Ovechkin.

The Caps won the draw, and Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller made a great save on an initial Backstrom shot.  The Caps controlled the puck and fed Chimera at the right point with Hiller screened by Ward.  Hiller managed to get in front of Chimera’s blast, but the carom went directly to Backstrom, all alone in the left face-off circle.  Backstrom buried the tying goal with 42 seconds remaining.

Boudreau, playing his instinct, won on this roll of the dice.  He countered all previous criticism of coddling his superstars by playing the line he thought had the best chance of scoring in that moment.

Answering a direct question about why Ovechkin wasn’t on the ice in the final minute of regulation, Boudreau replied:

“I thought other guys were better than him and I thought it was just a chance that other guys might score the goal. I’ve gotta put out the guys that I think are going to score the goal. And 99 percent of the time, Alex is the guy I think is going to score the goal. I just didn’t think he was going to score the goal at that time tonight. So, I mean, you go with your gut feeling thinking that other line is going pretty good. And I got lucky.”

Lucky or not, it paid off.

But the move resulted in a media firestorm in the post-game analyses and by this morning’s pundits.  As if the benching wouldn’t already draw enough attention, television cameras caught Ovechkin muttering something under his breath on the bench immediately after the timeout as Boudreau was moving behind the player on the bench.  If you’re reading this column, you’ve probably already seen the video and if you’re an amateur lip-reader, I’ll leave you to interpreting.  But it’s embarrassing at best that the team’s star was caught in this compromising position.

Does Ovechkin have every right to be upset that he wasn’t on the ice?  Absolutely.  He’s the most dynamic –and most competitive — player in the game today and the benching must have cut him to the very core.  Was Boudreau correct in gluing his star to the bench in the most crucial portion of the game?  Absolutely.  Ovechkin didn’t play well last night and the results speak for themselves.

But I think mostly overlooked in the analysis is that in overtime, Ovechkin was right back out on the ice with long-time running mate Backstrom and was the primary assist on Backstrom’s winning goal, a deft tip of a Jeff Schultz centering pass.

After the game, Ovechkin told a national television audience the right things, lauding the Laich line and acknowledging that the coaching decision paid dividends.  He declined to speak with local media in the locker room following the game though.

Watching the national media devour this story, you almost get the sense that some of these guys have been salivating for an incident like this to occur.  The level of animosity toward Ovechkin is really peculiar given his immense popularity with fans across the league — except in the Pennsylvania markets, of course.  But it’s undeniable.

That Ovechkin muttered something on the bench that may or may not have been directed at his coach after being informed he would not be on the ice for the most crucial sequence of the game last night was regrettable, unfortunate and embarrassing.  But incidents like this happen across the league all the time.  They just aren’t noticed in 99.8 percent of the cases because the player making the utterances doesn’t have a national television camera trained on a close-up of his face.

It’s heat-of-the-moment, battlefield-type stuff.  This time, it was captured for eternity.  And it won’t go away soon, unfortunately.  It was one shift, one sequence, one play, in a season full of them.  I’m sure it’s not the first time — or the last — a player has disagreed with a coaching decision, or even cursed him for it.  It might not have been the only one last night on the Caps’ bench.

But it worked.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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