This was a night that had disaster written all over it until fate, good fortune, the hockey gods, or maybe, as Coach Bruce Boudreau insisted, hard work — take your pick — intervened.
Before the game was five minutes old the Caps had given up a short-handed goal and the news had filtered down from Pittsburgh that Sidney Crosby was not only back but he was back, needing just 5 minutes 24 seconds to score a goal in his first game in more than 10 months.
Ovechkin was getting poke-checked from behind as he made his signature left-to-right move near the blue line on a Washington power play and Crosby was lighting the red lamp at Consol Energy Center at almost the same moment.
“We saw they were up 5-0 so we figured he was involved,” Mike Knuble said with a smile after the Caps had escaped with a 4-3 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes and Crosby had scored two goals and two assists in a 5-0 victory over the woeful New York Islanders, 247 miles to the northwest of Verizon Center.
“We know one win doesn’t make up for what we’ve been going through the last couple weeks, but it definitely lightens the room up,” Knuble said. “It’s nice to go home not feeling so down.”
With the Caps in the midst of a four-game losing streak and a 3-7-1 stretch after their 7-0 start, rumors that Boudreau was in trouble were flying. A loss on Monday might very well have set up an eerie replay of the scene four years ago when the Atlanta Thrashers came to town on the night before Thanksgiving and embarrassed the Caps, 5-1, amid a sea of boos in a half-empty arena. The next day Glen Hanlon was fired and Boudreau was promoted as interim coach, which marked the beginning of Washington’s renaissance.
Wednesday — Thanksgiving eve — the same team comes here now wearing Winnipeg on their sweaters. Boudreau is no Hanlon; Monday’s victory was his 200th in the NHL, making him the fastest coach to ever reach that number.
And yet, with playoff failures the last two springs staining his impressive résumé; with Ovechkin clearly sulking after his late-game benching in a come-from-behind overtime win over Anaheim three weeks ago and with Boudreau finally deciding to sit Ovechkin’s pal Alexander Semin on Monday, the whispers about Boudreau’s future were there just as they were last December during an eight-game skid.
General Manager George McPhee isn’t one to blink or panic quickly. He didn’t break up the team after the embarrassing second-round playoff loss to Tampa Bay last spring, he added veterans to it. Monday, looking tired and wan as the second period began, he didn’t appear ready to repeat his Thanksgiving maneuver of four years ago.
McPhee knows his team misses defenseman Mike Green, who has missed 11 games — the last five with a strained groin muscle — and may not be back for a while. With Green the Caps are 8-0. Without him, 3-7-1.