Coach Bruce Boudreau must reconnect with the Washington Capitals’ locker room, beginning with Monday’s game against the Phoenix Coyotes.
That process starts with getting on the same page as Alex Ovechkin.
Too often this season, it has appeared the coach and the captain have been pulling in opposite directions.
No player has as much sway on the ice and bench as Ovechkin. When he’s on his game, the other Capitals follow his lead. When he’s utterly uninspired, the team suffers inexplicable setbacks such as the one it did Saturday, a 7-1 defeat against Toronto; the Maple Leafs fielded a squad with a third-string goalie in net and seven regulars out of the lineup.
After opening the season with seven straight victories, the Capitals have gone 3-7-1. Ovechkin, meantime, hasn’t registered a point in the last four contests — all losses — which ties the worst scoring drought of his career.
NHL coaches don’t get canned for losing games. They get fired for losing touch with their team and repeatedly getting stonewalled by the team captain.
Signs of the disconnect between the two have been impossible to ignore:
●Boudreau moved Ovechkin to the wall on the power play. Ovechkin has said he feels more comfortable on the point.
●Boudreau and his coaching staff have implored Ovechkin to change his strategy on the attack for more than a year. Go wide instead of cutting to the middle, they’ve told him. Use teammates instead of squeezing off low-percentage shots. Their words, though, have fallen on deaf ears.
●Boudreau and his staff have begged Ovechkin to be more responsible in the defensive end, yet he still routinely floats in Washington’s zone and leaves it prematurely. Through the season’s first 18 games, he has a team-worst plus-minus rating of minus-6.
●Boudreau wants to distribute playing time more equitably. Although Ovechkin hasn’t complained publicly, it’s hard to believe he’s fine with skating 18 minutes 46 seconds per game, which is more than four minutes fewer than he averaged during his 65-goal season in 2007-08.
●Boudreau has ushered in a new era of accountability in which stars receive the same treatment as grinders. Anyone who watched Ovechkin’s reaction to being benched in the final moments of regulation against Anaheim on Nov. 1 (and can read lips) knows what the Capitals’ star player thinks about accountability when it’s applied to him.
In the eight games since that 5-4 overtime win against the Ducks, Ovechkin’s season-long slump has deepened.
Sure, he’s had his moments. The numbers, however — two goals and two assists — don’t lie.
Ovechkin’s struggles appeared to reach a low point Saturday at Air Canada Centre.
His team on the verge of sliding into a tailspin, Ovechkin, the league leader in shots on goal since he entered the league in 2005, did not attempt a shot for the first 28:42. Then, on the power play late in the second period, the puck was on his stick and he was a dozen feet from the net. But instead of firing on goaltender Jonas Gustavsson and his unremarkable .878 save percentage, Ovechkin dished the puck to the point instead.
Ovechkin’s disinterest, it seemed, trickled down to everyone else on the roster. And by the end of the night, the Capitals had suffered their most lopsided defeat since a 6-0 drubbing by the New York Rangers on Feb. 25.
When Ovechkin was asked whether he was disappointed in his performance this season, he sounded reluctant to accept responsibility for a slow start that’s threatening to turn into another subpar season, saying, “Sometimes you just shoot the puck at empty net and it misses net.”
Asked about his team’s struggles Sunday afternoon, Boudreau compared the handling of multimillionaire professional hockey players to raising children.
“It’s like parenting,” he said. “You want to get your child to do something right, you scold ’em, you cajole ’em, you take away things, you give things. I’ve always believed that it’s the coach’s job to find the Achilles’ heel that makes them work.”
Asked if Ovechkin’s “button” has been harder to find than it is with other players, Boudreau passed on the question, flashing a sarcastic smile.
“Go ahead,” he said, turning his head toward another reporter.
Perhaps Boudreau’s non-answer was stronger than any explanation he could make. But it also underscored the challenge he had before him, one that, in his words, is his job to meet.