Twenty games into the 2011-12 NHL season, “accountability” is still the Washington Capitals’ chief buzzword.
The mantra that has been trumpeted by the organization’s ownership, management, coaches and players since mid-summer has been tested early, but Coach Bruce Boudreau has stood his ground as the Capitals close out the second month of the regular season.
In just the past week, as he looked to snap the Capitals out of a four-game losing streak and an even longer stretch of sloppy performances, Boudreau turned a scheduled day off into a practice, made one of his most prominent offensive stars a healthy scratch for undisciplined play and sat one of the team’s hardest workers as punishment for oversleeping and missing a team meeting.
“When we talked at the end of last year about things that we thought needed to be improved upon, this was it,” winger Matt Hendricks said. “Coming into training camp, this was the groundwork that needed to be laid. I think Bruce and [General Manager] George [McPhee], the management staff, has done a good job of holding everyone accountable. When it starts at the top and works its way down, it’s a lot easier for the players to hold each other to that.”
Heading into back-to-back games against the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres on Friday and Saturday, respectively, the Capitals are 12-7-1 and sit sixth in the Eastern Conference standings. They’re three points away from first-place Pittsburgh and just five ahead of 14th-place Carolina, but Washington appears to be on the upswing after claiming consecutive wins this week as Boudreau pushed his players’ buttons.
There are still questions about whether the team’s brightest stars — namely captain Alex Ovechkin and his close friend, Alexander Semin — have adjusted and accepted Boudreau’s diligent approach to reward performance, not status, with playing time. But Ovechkin, who has just six points and two goals since he was benched late in regulation against Anaheim earlier this month, played down any perceived growing pains.
“It’s just the discipline,” Ovechkin said. “It shows it doesn’t matter who you are on the team. You a leader or just a fourth-line guy, you can’t be late. You can’t do simple things [wrong] and I think everybody understand it.”
The Capitals entered the season knowing things would be different under Boudreau. In July, players were alerted that they would all be expected to complete a timed conditioning test on the first day of training camp at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. When that day came in September, Boudreau stopped Ovechkin mid-stride to point out the line on the ice and make sure the star left wing didn’t cheat on the drill.
It continued when neither veteran goaltender Tomas Vokoun nor second-line center Marcus Johansson played in the opener after lackluster preseasons. When the team’s earliest losses occurred, well-liked and respected veterans Mike Knuble and Jeff Halpern were demoted and scratched, respectively, after an absence of on-ice production.
Then, on Nov. 1, Boudreau made waves when he opted not to play Ovechkin late in regulation as the Capitals attempted to tie the Anaheim Ducks, instead rewarding players who had a stronger game. Washington won the contest, 5-4, in overtime.
Boudreau “said it last year at the beginning of the year — that this was going to be a bit tougher — and that didn’t really happen. I think this year they’re feeling more pressure to continue to get better,” former Capitals forward Eric Fehr, now with Winnipeg, said this week. “You’ve got a lot of skilled players out there that need a lot of ice time and it’s a tough job for him to try to get everybody out there and keep everybody happy. I wouldn’t want to be in that spot, but he’s doing the best he can.”
Boudreau decided to make Semin a healthy scratch for the first time since the $6.7 million winger’s rookie season of 2003-04. Semin had taken penalties in seven consecutive games — including a 7-1 loss to Toronto, the Capitals’ worst loss since February — and was struggling to get on track offensively.
“It was a tough decision,” Boudreau said at the time, “but it was a decision that I thought had to be made for the group.”
Semin’s time in the press box was received as a message by the rest of the team. The next day, when news broke that hard-working winger Joel Ward would be scratched for something as seemingly harmless as oversleeping and missing a team meeting, it put the Capitals on notice once again.
“It makes guys really conscious to what’s going on around them. It makes them conscious of how they need to act and behave,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “I’m glad there’s no double standard here because it doesn’t matter what your name is — if you break a rule, you should have to deal with the consequences.”
Capitals notes: Jets forward Zach Bogosian will not be suspended or fined for his hit on Cody Eakin during the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime win on Wednesday, according to NHL spokesman John Dellapina. . . .
Mike Green didn’t skate for the 13th consecutive day after suffering a strained right groin muscle on Nov. 11. The defenseman has missed six games because of the injury. . . .
Asked if Ward would be back in the lineup Friday, Boudreau said, “Absolutely.”