- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

The game Alex Ovechkin always has been able to bend to his will is suddenly offering some resistance. Tuesday night, for the first time since he was “a little kid … probably 14,” he guesses, he wasn’t on the ice in the final moments of the third period when his team needed a goal.

All the Washington Capitals captain could do was mutter an apparent expletive — in Russian? English? — and take a seat on the bench as coach Bruce Boudreau sent out the third line of Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera and Joel Ward to try to scare up a score against the visiting Anaheim Ducks. At the same time, the Caps’ net being empty, Boudreau inserted Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin’s linemate, as the sixth attacker.

It was one of those “This hurts me more than it does you” moments for a coach. Ovie hadn’t been having one of his better nights, so Boudreau decided to go with his “gut” and put in the line that had been skating circles around the opposition all night. He knew very well the stir his move would create — that his star would be a wee bit angry (though No. 8 used slightly different words), that the media would make a mountain out of it and that Capitals Nation would be all atwitter. But he wasn’t worried about that at the moment. He was worried about winning the game.

What happened next made Gabby’s Gambit all the more fascinating. Backstrom rifled home a rebound to tie it with 42 seconds left, then scored again in overtime — off a pass that glanced off Ovechkin’s boot — to give the Caps a 5-4 victory. When I asked Boudreau on Wednesday if his “gut” had ever been more right, he said, “I guess when I asked my wife to marry me.”

Withholding the face of the franchise in the last minute isn’t something you can just sweep under the Zamboni. It’s out there for all to see — to react and overreact to. The question is: What do you read into it? Because, as right wing Mike Knuble said, “You don’t see that too often. And it’s even rarer that it works out like it did. The easiest, safest thing to do is just put your superstars out there.”

But Boudreau chose the road rarely taken — and as a result, Ovechkin was invited to appear next week on “Jim Rome is Burning.” Lovely.

Some will say it’s just the latest indication that the coach is carrying a bigger stick this season, that indifferent play will no longer be tolerated — from anyone, even the greatest player/scorer (choose one) in Capitals history. And there’s truth to that, no doubt.

It may also be, though, that Ovechkin isn’t quite as important to the club as he once was. His days as a 50- or 60-goal scorer, for instance, could well be over; he might be “only” a 30- or 40-goal scorer now. But beyond that, the roster, from top to bottom, is arguably as strong as it’s been in Ovie’s career. And as a roster gets deeper, every player — not just Alex — becomes less essential. By that I mean: You can live without him for parts of games or even parts of seasons without it killing you.

The Capitals had one of those games against the Ducks. Other guys were contributing more, so Ovechkin had to sit and watch them play at crunch time — which, in the past, has always been His Time. When the Caps pulled out the win, it just amplified whatever message Boudreau was trying to send him (and the rest of the team as well).

“Sometimes you do something on a hunch,” Knuble said, “and sometimes you do it to make a point. You say, ‘I’m gonna roll the dice, and even if I have to take the loss I’m makin’ my point. … [It’s a] good time of year to hammer home a couple of points.”

Indeed it is. You can’t win the Stanley Cup in November, but you can lose it by not laying down certain laws, by letting things slide and just hoping they’ll get better — or won’t end up costing you. Boudreau, it’s clear, plans to be more demanding this season. But part of the reason may be that he feels he can be. He can afford to make Marcus Johansson and Jeff Halpern healthy scratches. He can afford to reduce Alexander Semin’s minutes. He can afford to tell Ovechkin to take a seat.

“We think we’ve got a pretty balanced team,” he said, “and we’re looking for the best players at the right times. We hope [these not-so-gentle reminders] don’t happen very often.”

A day later, Ovechkin seemed to be taking it the right way — the way, that is, you’d want a team leader to take it. His pride was stung, and he talked about the whole episode being “frustrating,” but he also said, “We’re one team, and it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Yes, it can happen even to Alex Ovechkin. Ask yourself this, though: If it can happen to Alex Ovechkin, is he still Alex Ovechkin?