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.