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.
“In this league missing one good player can be critical,” McPhee said. “There’s just not that much difference between teams and you take a guy like Greenie out and it changes a lot of things in a lot of ways.
“Bruce did the right thing with Ovi in the Anaheim game,” he continued quietly. “He did the right thing when he didn’t start [Tomas] Vokoun in the opener. He did the right thing tonight sitting Semin.”
Semin has spent plenty of time in the box lately and leads the team in penalty minutes by a comfortable margin. “He’d taken penalties in seven straight games,” Boudreau said. “At some point you have to be accountable.”
That’s been the message this fall from both McPhee and Boudreau: Everyone has to be accountable. That’s why Ovechkin sat in the final minute of regulation against Anaheim and why Semin sat Monday. Ovechkin had five goals and five assists in 10 games prior to the Anaheim incident. He had two goals and two assists (and a minus-six rating) in the next eight games.
He now has seven goals in 19 games — just five more than Crosby has in one. The Caps aren’t going anywhere this spring if Ovechkin is an average hockey player.
On Monday, things got worse before they got better. After Radim Vrbata scored short-handed in the first period on a John Carlson giveaway at the point, Lauri Korpikoski scored on a penalty shot following another breakaway on a Washington power play. At that moment, Vokoun slammed his stick angrily, pretty much summing up the way most of the red-clad not-so-faithful felt about the way things were going.
The boos were just beginning to waft down from the rafters when Washington’s luck turned. After a careless give away by the Coyotes, Carlson lined up a shot from the right point that deflected off Martin Hanzal’s stick and beat backup goalie Jason LaBarbera, who was making only his fourth start of the season. With three home games in four nights later this week, Phoenix decided to rest starter Mike Smith — another bit of luck for Washington. LaBarbera gave up the tying goal on another deflection off what appeared to be a harmless Cody Eakin shot at 11:36 and the Coyotes were just about done at that point, although they managed to close the gap to 4-3 late after goals by Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich — on a five-on-three power play — had put Washington up 4-2 in the third.
“We gave them two, we ought to score one,” Boudreau said of his beleaguered power-play unit.
It was Carlson’s goal that changed the tenor of the evening and the feeling in the building. “It was pretty quiet just before that goal, “Laich said. “The place felt a little bit deflated. After John’s goal everyone got some life back and we went from there. Maybe they were a little bit tired from the road but they’re a good team, tough to play against when you’re behind.”
Which is where luck came into play.
“It was quiet,” Boudreau said. “I think people were kind of sitting on their hands waiting to see what was going to happen next.
“I’m a firm believer, though, that you get those breaks when you work hard. You don’t get them when you don’t do the work. It’s not luck when you work hard and good things happen.”
Just enough good things happened Monday to calm the waters — at least for the moment.
There’s no need to panic right now. But when your superstar is slumping and sulking and his best friend is benched and your once-beloved coach is under the gun (again), it might be time to be just a little bit nervous.
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