For a team that dreams of cavorting with the Stanley Cup, the Washington Capitals sure have a lot of drama.
First it’s Alex Ovechkin being passed over for a power play. Then it’s a four-game losing streak and a road trip that went from bad to worse to indefensible. Then it’s forward Alexander Semin, with two goals and two assists in the past month, being a healthy scratch.
That’s almost a crisis a week (as Bruce Boudreau’s blood pressure can tell you). Are the Capitals ever going grow out of this phase — and into the talent so many see in them? Or are they fated, forevermore to be this mostly entertaining club that can’t quite seem to get out of its own way?
The latter question hangs heavily over the Caps this Thanksgiving Day. Since a 7-0 start, they’ve played with alarming indifference, the kind of casualness that got them swept by Tampa Bay last spring in the second round of the playoffs. They were still 11-7-1 heading into Wednesday night’s game against Winnipeg at Verizon Center — hardly a catastrophe — but they weren’t giving off a very optimistic vibe. In fact, they were making you wonder what the next soap opera might be.
Boudreau, once again under fire, has been trying to get through to his players in all the ways a coach can — and I’m not just referring to his extensive sailor’s vocabulary. He sat Ovechkin at a crucial moment in the Anaheim game Nov. 1. He benched Semin for the whole of the Phoenix game Monday. And he’s put some veterans on notice by working 20-year-olds Cody Eakin and Dmitry Orlov into the mix. There are multiple motives behind these moves, but one of them, no doubt, is to root out the complacency that continues to plague the Capitals, from the captain on down.
Until recently, Ovechkin has been kind of an untouchable in these parts — untouchable because he was such a goal-scoring machine, untouchable because his popularity meant so much to the franchise. When you put 65 pucks in the net, as Ovie did four seasons ago, just about anything can be forgiven. But when you put 32 pucks in the net, as Ovie did last season (and as a fair number of other players do), your Get Out of Jail Free card isn’t nearly as all-inclusive. Or to put it another way, your flaws not only become more obvious but less acceptable.
If this scoring dip of Ovechkin’s is permanent and not temporary — and he was on a 30-goal pace through 19 games — he simply has to become a better two-way player. His devotion to defense can’t fluctuate from night to night or shift to shift. After all, he’s being paid millions of dollars, and that won’t change anytime soon. If he can’t be the Ovie of old, then it behooves him to reinvent himself as a world-class grinder, a Mark Messier for the new millennium. It’s hard to see the Caps getting past the second round if he doesn’t.
Bizarre, isn’t it, that we’re discussing this the same week Sidney Crosby returned to the ice after a 10 1/2-month absence? Ovechkin had a terrific opportunity, while the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar was away, to make it His League, to establish himself as the preeminent player in the game. Instead, his golden scoring touch deserted him and his team was swept out of the playoffs, which just made the fans — fans everywhere — miss Crosby more.
Monday night, in his first game back, Sid the Kid tallied two goals and two assists. Ovie, hard as it is to believe, had only one four-point game in all the time Crosby was gone (one goal, three assists at Tampa Bay in February). You get the feeling, as you watch No. 8 go up and down the right wing, that he had his chance … and that the NHL is Sid’s World now — as long, that is, as he can steer clear of concussions.
I don’t know about you, but I expected the Capitals to play a little madder this season. The Lightning embarrassed them in their sayonara series, 4-nil, and that shouldn’t have sat very well with anybody. But whatever anger might have been bubbling inside the Caps early in the season, as they ran off seven straight wins, seems to have been spent. In its place we have these periodic dramas, self-inflicted for the most part, and the growing sense that we already know how this story turns out, even if it’s only Thanksgiving.