NEWARK, N.J. — Alexander Semin’s equipment bag sat outside the visiting locker room at Prudential Center by itself. It was the first one on the cart to head out to the bus.
It was only fitting. Semin had no use for his equipment for the last 24 minutes Friday night, benched for poor play as coach Bruce Boudreau was willing to sacrifice talent for effort in order to beat the New Jersey Devils, which the Washington Capitals did 3-1. Semin was firmly planted on the bench as part of the most recent and most glaring example of accountability.
“You’ve got to practice what you preach,” Boudreau said. “It can’t be lip service and then go out and do the same stuff.”
Any question about the talk being just “lip service” was erased Friday night. Mike Green was out again with an injury, but Boudreau still shortened his bench to jump-start his team. It worked, as the Caps chipped away at a one-goal deficit with timely offense from Alex Ovechkin, Jason Chimera and finally Marcus Johansson.
“Bruce has kind of been talking all year that he’s going to do what he has to do to win hockey games,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “[He was] really just shortening the bench quite a bit, sending a message to the guys. I think the guys obviously responded to it as well.”
Although Boudreau didn’t explain to his players what he was doing, they understood the strong message.
“It just kind of means that nobody’s safe. If you’re not playing quality hockey, if you’re not doing what’s best for the team, then you’re not going to get the ice time for it,” Brouwer said. “That kind of just makes sure that everyone knows that everyone has to be accountable for what they do out there.”
It wasn’t Green’s fault that he missed a great majority of the second period and all of the third after suffering what Boudreau called a “different soreness” in an awkward collision late in the first.
Semin was a different story. He took an offensive-zone hooking penalty in the first, his team-worst 10th minor of the season, and Boudreau saw other parts of his game that weren’t clicking. Semin finished with a season-low 8:25 of ice time, the third worst (counting injuries) of his NHL career.
“I just thought, [you] take another penalty and at the same time there was some plays where I thought he could’ve done a little bit more and he didn’t,” Boudreau said. “I’ve had him for four years now. It just didn’t look like he had it tonight. I hadn’t done that, I don’t think, to him before. We had to shorten the bench to get guys in the game.”
It paid dividends — not only by making a point about playing the right way but by getting the 10 forwards who did play more ice time. Semin was punished; Cody Eakin was a victim of youth and numbers and the other guys picked up the slack.
“When you see [lines] roll over like that, you get in more of a rhythm, as anyone knows you play a little bit more get to feel the puck a little more,” said Chimera, who scored the game-winner shorthanded. “You feel a little better out there, so it’s one of those things it happens sometimes with a short bench.”
One injury. One benching. Two cornerstones of the Caps and the “Young Guns.” But the Caps not only survived but thrived without Green and Semin, perhaps giving them confidence about overcoming issues and responding to calls for consistency.
“I thought this was a really important game for us to come back after the loss on Tuesday,” Boudreau said. “We were doing everything we could to win that game.”
That wound up including a high-profile benching of Semin. But the message was sent, the coach said, and it shouldn’t linger to Saturday’s rematch with the Devils at Verizon Center.
“He’s a great player,” Boudreau said, “and he’s a player we’re going to need tomorrow night.”
The Caps didn’t need him Friday night, showing accountability preached and practiced can equate to victories.