One of the most important tests of Coach Bruce Boudreau’s tenure behind the Washington Capitals’ bench arrived Tuesday night at Verizon Center.
The Capitals needed a goal to force the game against the Anaheim Ducks to overtime, and after calling a timeout to draw up a play, Boudreau put out the players he felt gave his team the best chance of snagging a point in the standings.
To everyone’s surprise — especially Alex Ovechkin’s — the team captain was not among them. Ovechkin was predictably not pleased with Boudreau’s decision and cameras caught him cursing as he turned away from his coach and took a seat.
Despite Ovechkin’s profane protest, Boudreau made the right decision in an eventual 5-4 overtime victory. Ovechkin was having another off night in a season that, three weeks in, has already seen its share of them.
He wasn’t moving his feet. Five of the nine pucks he fired at the net either missed or were blocked. On one attempt, he completely whiffed.
Boudreau has never shown a reluctance to bench complementary players. But until Tuesday, many wondered whether he would sit one of his stars, even after promising a new era of accountability around Kettler Capitals Iceplex during training camp.
Scratching second-year center Marcus Johansson is one thing. Same with dropping Mike Knuble from the second line to the fourth. It’s entirely different when it’s Ovechkin.
By benching Ovechkin for just one shift, Boudreau delivered a strong — and potentially galvanizing — message to the entire dressing room: This season, Ovechkin will be treated like everyone else.
“When is a teacher a great teacher? When the student is ready to learn,” hockey analyst and former NHL coach Mike Keenan said on the NBC Sports postgame show. “In this case, Alex Ovechkin has to show a lot more respect to his coaching staff and to his team. There’s a response here that’s not a positive response.”
He added: “It took a lot of courage for Bruce to do that. A lot of people will question if he had the courage to make that call. He did.”
The immediate returns were positive: Ovechkin came off the bench in overtime and earned the primary assist on Nicklas Backstrom’s winner in a wild victory.
From here, though, Ovechkin’s relationship with Boudreau can go one of two ways.
He can play his best game of the season in Carolina on Friday. Or he can let his ego get the best of him and touch off a divisive power struggle in the Capitals’ dressing room.
On Wednesday, both men responded in a way that diffused a potentially tense situation.
Ovechkin was one of the first players on the ice for practice. When Boudreau called the players to the dry-erase board midway through the hour-long session, he was in his usual spot, front and center, on one knee. As Boudreau stepped off the rink afterward, he surveyed the gaggle of media and the film crew from NBC Sports and cracked, “Jeez, I only benched him one shift.”
“It’s [part of] the whole theme for the whole year,” Boudreau explained. “We sat Marcus. And Jeff Halpern. Alex Semin has missed time at certain times.”
And now the $9 million face of the franchise.
Benching Ovechkin was a risky move. It also might prove to be a turning point — for better or worse — for the coach and his star player. But Boudreau understood all that when he made the decision. Truth is, he’s been considering it for a while.
The question now is what happens next.