Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals’ star left wing, was benched for more than 14 minutes in Monday’s 4-2 loss to Montreal for repeatedly refusing to adhere to team policy regarding length of shifts and defensive zone coverage.
Multiple league sources speaking on the condition of anonymity said the rookie had been warned several times about paying more attention to defense in his own zone and keeping his shifts within limits laid down by the coaching staff unless specifically directed to do otherwise.
The warnings fell on deaf ears, sources said, and the decision was made to press the matter and do it in a way in which it would make an impact on the 20-year-old.
“This is his first year in the NHL and he has to learn that there are rules that have to be followed,” one source said. “You only get one chance to make a first impression and the Caps are trying to make sure the one he gets is the right one. This is the time to make these corrections, not down the road somewhere.”
Coach Glen Hanlon did not return phone calls yesterday. General manager George McPhee said the incident had been settled and he had nothing else to add. Ovechkin was traveling with the team and not available.
It is not the first time a star forward has been benched for extending shifts. Caps such as Bobby Carpenter, Dave Christian and Mike Gartner, the latter now in the Hall of Fame, all were disciplined for not following guidelines on length of shifts.
Monday night, sources said, Ovechkin was warned again about ignoring defensive responsibilities as well as extending shifts. He had been going through a mini-slump — one goal in five games before Monday — and apparently was trying to play through it.
But two incidents Monday brought the matter to a head. Eleven minutes into the middle period, with the Caps trying to kill a penalty, Ovechkin left the defensive zone and stood at the red line, apparently waiting for a breakaway pass instead of helping his teammates, creating through his absence a 5-on-3 disadvantage. Then, shortly thereafter, sources said, he ignored an order to come off the ice on a power play and stayed out instead of changing up.
He was benched for the last three minutes of the second period and the first 11 of the third. He scored a goal, his 44th, with 11 seconds left in the game.
The Caps are rebuilding and challenged offensively and defensively. Any letdown on either side of the puck is magnified, as Monday’s loss clearly slows, a dismal effort in which three of Montreal’s four goals might have been prevented with only a little more concentration and work.
“All players, whether they’re on the first or fourth lines, expect everybody to follow basic team rules; not to do so leads to anarchy,” one former coach said. “It doesn’t matter who you are — defense is everybody’s job. It’s one thing to give guys freedom in their own zone but when the puck crosses your blue line, it’s a different story. No more freelancing. Your job — everybody’s job — is to stop the puck.”
There have been a few murmurs in the dressing room about the publicity Ovechkin receives being overblown, that he has been paying too much attention to offense while ignoring defensive liabilities. A source close to the team acknowledged yesterday that the charge might be true to an extent with the team possibly partially at fault. It’s something, he said, that will be watched more closely.