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On Hockey: Bruce Boudreau has gone from players’ coach to taskmaster

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All through training camp, Bruce Boudreau said he would hold his players accountable this season.

Still, many wondered how — and to what extent — the Washington Capitals’ coach would apply his new, tougher philosophy when the games actually counted.

Marcus Johansson and Tomas Vokoun are no longer wondering.

Johansson had no points or shots on goal in five preseason games; Vokoun sported a pedestrian .870 save percentage in three starts. So both watched Saturday’s regular season opener at Verizon Center, Johansson from the press box, Vokoun from the bench. It didn’t matter to Boudreau that Johansson is among the NHL’s emerging young stars, or that Vokoun had been penciled in as the team’s No. 1 netminder from the moment he was signed in July.

In his first three-plus seasons behind the Capitals’ bench, Boudreau was a players’ coach. These days, he’s a taskmaster. Just two games into the season, though, it's too early to tell whether the change will stick.

“I don’t think it’s that difficult,” Boudreau said, asked about the transition from one coaching extreme to the other. “You just do what you have to do.”

Asked how much pressure his coach is under, General Manager George McPhee said, “I don’t believe in this hot seat stuff.” But that doesn’t mean Boudreau can’t sense that the chair in the coach’s office at Kettler Capitals Iceplex is warmer than it was last October, before Tampa Bay swept Washington out of the second round of the playoffs.

“It’s a challenge,” Boudreau said. “My whole life has been a challenge of making it. I want to do well. If that’s pressure, if that’s a hot seat, then bring it on.”

To fully understand why Boudreau opted for such a drastic change, you’ve got to go back to this time a year ago.

The Capitals came into the 2010-11 season already thinking seven months ahead to the postseason, where, the previous spring, they suffered a historic first-round collapse against Montreal.

Some players reported to Arlington expecting to work their way into top shape. Others didn’t practice hard — or often — enough. A few enjoyed their fame and fortune a little too much.

Boudreau gave them leeway and they took advantage. But that’s not to say the coach was a victim. He could have cracked down. He did not.

Fissures in the Capitals’ foundation were masked when they snapped an eight-game losing streak, overcame a season-long scoring drought and claimed a second straight Eastern Conference regular season title. But as small as the cracks might have seemed, they were exploited by a Tampa Bay team that had more resolve and discipline, if less skill.

In the weeks that followed the Capitals’ second straight early exit, Boudreau was understandably jumpy each time his cellphone rang. But the call he feared never came.

McPhee tweaked the roster, adding five veteran players and pushing payroll past the salary cap ceiling, rather than fire his coach and his 17-20 postseason record. It was the right move, if not an overwhelmingly popular one among an increasingly frustrated fan base. Boudreau does, after all, boast the best regular season winning percentage (.679) of any coach with at least 250 games on his résumé.

As McPhee weighed his options, Claude Julien was leading Boston to the Stanley Cup. Just a season before, Julien’s job appeared to be in jeopardy after the Bruins blew a 3-0 series lead against the Flyers in the semifinals. Julien’s playoff record as an NHL coach was 21-21 before Boston’s run last spring.

McPhee gave Boudreau another opportunity in a game that doesn’t often give them.

“What we talked about, as a staff, is we have to make guys accountable,” said assistant coach Bob Woods, Boudreau’s longtime lieutenant. “As coaches, you take ice time away or take a spot in the lineup away, that’s a very strong message. You have to find ways to get through to guys.”

Scratching players from the lineup isn’t the only method Boudreau has used.

On the opening day of training camp, Alex Ovechkin repeatedly stopped short as he turned during the team’s grueling conditioning skate. Boudreau pointed to Ovechkin, then to the line with his stick as fans watched.

Boudreau has presided over longer, more demanding practices. Many have ended with players doubled over, gasping for air.

He’s also sent messages that are less obvious.

“We had an exhibition camp game where something happened and I didn’t use a certain player in a certain situation,” Boudreau said.

He wouldn’t name the offending player or the offense, but the coach hinted that the “certain player” was a star and the “situation” was the power play.

Although the new Boudreau has taken some getting used to, the team’s core players say he has the dressing room’s support.

“When you don’t get the results you want, you have to try something different,” forward Brooks Laich said. “This year, it’s not so much about who you are, it’s about the job you’re doing. If you’re doing your job, you play. If you’re not doing your job, you’re not playing.”

Boudreau acknowledged that there’s a delicate balance that must be struck when it comes to meting out punishment. If he backs off, players could turn a deaf ear. If he pushes too hard or doesn’t apply justice equitably, it could backfire.

“It’s a fine line. Do you cut your nose to spite your face?” Boudreau said, shrugging.

It’s an important question. But it’s one he must answer, because there’s no going back to the old way, and he’s just about used up his margin for error.

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