When center Brooks Laich signed his new six-year deal in June, he just about wrote the Capitals' manifesto for this season. This year, he said "there's got to be a lot more accountability" — no matter a player's star status, salary or tenure in Washington.
That has been the case since before training camp as practices have been harder and more frequent and good and bad play has been rewarded or punished accordingly. Coach Bruce Boudreau's decision to bench superstar left wing Alex Ovechkin the final couple of minutes of regulation Tuesday night in their 5-4 overtime win over Anaheim was just the latest example.
"That has been a term that we've used: accountability, within our group," forward Matt Hendricks said. "Everybody needs to be accountable for each other — for their actions, for their work ethic, for the way they play."
Even if it's Ovechkin, the captain, two-time MVP and $9 million player. With the game on the line, Boudreau rewarded Laich, left wing Jason Chimera, right wing Joel Ward and others for their play against the Ducks - and kept his star player on the bench.
Ovechkin appeared to mutter an obscenity referring to Boudreau after speaking with the coach, but Wednesday made it clear he understood the move.
"Well, I was [ticked] off. Of course I wanted to be in the situation on the ice. It doesn't matter who I said it [to] and what I said," Ovechkin said. "It's just a little bit frustrating because I'm a leader on the team, and I want to be on that kind of responsibility."
The Capitals widely applauded the example set by Boudreau — not just with Ovechkin but a concerted effort to make sure players are treated the same. If one guy isn't doing his job (take, for example center Marcus Johansson at the end of the preseason), he gets a seat in the press box — or at least one on the bench when big situations arise.
"He is cracking down. Personally, I really like stuff like that," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "If you work as hard as you possibly can and you're trying to block shots and do all that and then one guy isn't, you don't like to see that. That feels like you've been wasting your time. ... Everybody's trying to make sure that they're accountable because they don't want to let their teammates down."
Players almost unanimously agreed that stars do often get a bit of a longer leash, and it's impossible to treat everyone on the roster the same way. But in sitting Ovechkin in favor of grinders who enjoyed better nights against Anaheim, Boudreau solidified that this year was different than last.
"[It's different than] probably every year that he's been the coach here," veteran right wing Mike Knuble said. "If he didn't play certain guys a couple years ago, it was biting your nose off to spite your face a little bit. Now there are guys here that can grind and get goals and do that."
It's a product of depth - more players who can excel in pressure spots — but also a change in philosophy. Former Cap Matt Bradley's comments over the summer about Boudreau not using quality of play and work ethic to determine playing time was the old way of doing things.
Not this year. And Ovechkin the superstar seems to be buying into it as Ovechkin the captain.
"It's one team, and it doesn't matter how good you are or who you are," he said. "If you want to win, you have to be on the same page. Everybody."
Sitting Ovechkin to show that he won't get special treatment could be a lead to the byproduct of solidifying the team theme of accountability. It's a good tone to set in November instead of waiting until March and April, Knuble said, but it's a constant that has been around since the summer.
"I'm hoping we don't change that message. We're going to try to stay strong with it," Boudreau said. "I think that's the only way that we're going to be successful."
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