By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010; D01
Maybe the conversation would be different had the puck left Alexander Semin's stick -- where it found itself in the first period of Game 5 Friday night -- and somehow made its way behind Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak. Semin's wrist shot, fired in a blur from the left circle behind a screen -- "one of the best shots in the league, if not the best," according to teammate Tom Poti -- instead found Halak's pad.
When Semin tracked down the rebound and tried a different tactic, whacking at the puck as he stood just inches from the goal, Halak absorbed it again. Bodies flew into the net. Semin, without a goal in a lengthening playoff series for the Washington Capitals, began to scrap with Montreal center Dominic Moore. It did no good.
Thus, the conversation heading into Monday's Game 6 -- the Capitals' second chance to eliminate the Canadiens and advance -- remains the same. Washington, the most dangerous offensive team in the league, is getting no production from Semin, one of the league's most dangerous offensive players. Through five games, he has no goals and one assist, and his propensity for seemingly drifting in and out of consciousness has only fueled the story line.
"A lot of people are talking about it," said Capitals forward Brooks Laich, one of Semin's linemates. "Despite what the media's saying, we're not concerned about [Semin]."
That is the appropriate tone for a teammate to take in the midst of what has been, for the most part, a tightly contested series. But there is a reason why Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau snapped off his answers about Semin's performance after the 2-1 loss in Game 5. He is counted on to score goals. He has not done so. And that has an effect not only on Semin, but on the entire lineup -- particularly the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble.
"When he's scoring . . . you can't just sit there and wait and put your best defensive players against Ovechkin's line all the time," Boudreau said. "You just have to sit there and go, 'Oh, now we've got two lines to worry about.' And when he's not scoring, sometimes you can lay your eggs all in one basket and say, 'Okay, let's just stop Ovechkin and Nicky and the other lines will win the game for us.' "
What Semin thinks about all this, he largely keeps to himself. After the Capitals went through a spirited workout Sunday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex -- concentrating largely on the power play, another primary weapon for Washington that has been lackluster -- Semin was the first off the ice and into the dressing room. When members of the media arrived only a few minutes later, his helmet hung on a hook, his skates were away, and he was gone. Through a team spokesman, he declined to address his playoff performance, which now includes 12 straight games without a goal, because he failed to score in last year's dramatic seven-game series against Pittsburgh that ended Washington's season.
Semin's locker at the Capitals' Arlington training complex is next to that of veteran Scott Walker, a midseason addition who has played with countless skilled players in a 15-year career, including Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny. Semin, Walker said, ranks with the most talented offensive players in the league, "and he's stronger than I ever thought he was." But how he handles such slumps? "I don't really know a ton about him," Walker said.
"He hasn't shown any frustration," Laich said. Added Poti: "He's taking it in stride."
The job as Semin's spokesman falls largely to Ovechkin, his Russian compatriot and closest friend on the Capitals. During practice, after Semin knelt in front of Boudreau as the coach dictated instructions to the entire team, Ovechkin leaned in and spoke to his buddy -- who he calls, almost exclusively, by his nickname "Sasha" -- to make sure Semin understood. The state of Semin's English is open to debate. "He can speak it," Ovechkin said last year, "when he wants to." In any case, he rarely addresses reporters in anything but Russian.
"I think mentally it's a good thing he doesn't speak English," Ovechkin said Sunday, smiling. "He can't listen to [the media]. But I think mentally, the most important thing is [that his] teammates help him a lot. He's trying, and I think last game he played very well. He played pretty hard, made some hits, shoot the puck."
Friday night, Semin registered nine shots against the Canadiens, and his 29 shots through five games this postseason ranked second in the playoffs through Saturday's games. It is a stat the Capitals are leaning on to show that Semin is engaged.
"If 'Sash' was out there not shooting the puck," Laich said, "I would start to be concerned. . . . He is increasingly becoming the most dangerous player on the ice, the longer he goes without a goal. Good players, you can't hold back forever. They're eventually going to break out."
That, too, has been Semin's history. Since 2007, he has gone as many as five games without a goal six times during the regular season. Each time, he ended the drought with something of an onslaught -- either a multi-goal game or a string of consecutive games in which he scores. It is that history, that ability to produce in bunches, that allows Ovechkin to say, "It's going to be soon."
Now, Semin is coming off what Boudreau and many Capitals believe was his most focused game of the playoffs, one in which he made a diving poke check to stop a breakaway by Montreal's Tomas Plekanec. Still, with less than seven minutes remaining in the third period, the Capitals were down a goal and on the power play. Eric Fehr feathered a pass between a triangle of Canadiens, and Semin was alone in the slot. He blazed a shot at Halak.
"I don't even think the goalie saw the puck," Poti said. Yet it bounced off Halak. It did not go in. Semin remained scoreless, and the Capitals lost.
"He looked a little frustrated," Boudreau said. " . . . You start holding your stick a little too tight when you get in a slump -- and it might be something that he's not used to, a slump."
The idea would be for Semin to end the slump Monday night. Then, the conversation could turn to the next series, which would be against Philadelphia. And then, maybe, it could be about Alexander Semin's contributions for the Capitals, rather than his apparent absence.