Ovechkin’s primary failing in last year’s playoff was going all lone-wolf on his team when they fell behind against the Montreal Canadiens and couldn’t solve the goaltending of Jaroslav Halak. This year, it looks as if Ovechkin has made a concentrated effort to be more of a team player on the ice.
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For a short time, when he and fellow Russian Alexander Semin were playing together on a line, it was Ovechkin’s playmaking that sent Semin off on a goal-scoring spree. It looks as if Ovechkin is caught in between right now, thinking too much about his own role on the team and what actually goes into being the captain of an NHL team.
He still leads the NHL in shots, with 146 in 33 games, but is just five up on Jeff Carter (Philadelphia) and eight ahead of Patrick Sharp (Chicago), for an average of about 4.4 per game. Usually, he is miles ahead in this category. Last year, his average was 5.1 shots per game (and only New Jersey’s Zach Parise was even in the ballpark).
So Ovechkin has a lot to sort out in the next four months. Is he a scorer? Is he a set-up man? How does he tangibly demonstrate leadership when his English language skills are improving but still sounds better as a sound bite than anything else? Realistically, if Ovechkin sees this early adversity as a challenge and rises to it, it might be the best thing that ever happened to the Capitals down the road, when it matters most.
In the meantime, it is hard to imagine anyone doing a better job behind the bench than the charismatic Boudreau, handling a team of so many diverse personalities. This is one time where a coaching change could easily have the opposite of the desired effect - and actually send the Capitals retreating further down the standings.
It's hard to believe, but Alex Ovechkin still can't recover from that Vancouver Olympics disaster. It was his Chernobyl and there is still a lot of radioactive stuff that burns inside. All bravado, all his "I don't care what people think about me" is just a cover. Alex is very emotional guy and things like his Grandpa's illness or loss to team Canada deeply affect him and his performance.
For Bruce Boudreau the time is as hard as ever. He never played defensive hockey, he never coached a team that used trap. Can he do it? The first example that comes to mind is Scotty Bowman.
In 1993–94, Bowman then became coach of the Red Wings, and led them to a first-place finish in the Western Conference, but his Red Wings were ousted in the first round by the young San Jose Sharks. An apocryphal story reported about Bowman's "Spinal Tap"-like troubles in the tunnels of the San Jose Arena where he got lost in the tangled maze, and twice locked himself into rooms and had to be rescued.
In 1995, the Red Wings made it to the Stanley Cup Finals but were swept by the New Jersey Devils in four straight. This was the Red Wings' first appearance in the finals in 29 years.
After losing to trap team like New Jersey Devils is, Scotty Bowman had to adjust. And the help came from one of his assistant coaches. Barry Smith installed the defensive system called "left wing lock".
Unfortunately Capitals don't have an assistant coach who can help in that category. It's do or die for Bruce Boudreau now.
By Katie Carrera, Washington Post, Dec. 18, 2010:
"Only fools or stubborn fools, when something's not working, don't change for the sake of not changing," said Boudreau, who was pleased with the early returns as the Capitals played one of their best defensive games of the season Wednesday against the Anaheim Ducks. The contest concluded as a 2-1 overtime loss, but Washington showed a dedicated effort to get back to the defensive end on every shift, minimized turnovers and yielded just a handful of scoring chances.
"I think this is the type of game we need to play to be successful in the playoffs," defenseman Mike Green said. "The only reason why I say that is because now having played in the playoffs for three years, this is what teams have done to us and this is how they've shut us down. . . . It was an area in our game that we needed to work on and we needed to adjust, and we're consciously making the decision to adjust."
Playing with a dedicated shut-down line and having all five skaters work deep in their own zone is a different style than the one the Capitals have grown accustomed to under Boudreau. Rather than pinching up as much and looking to join the rush constantly, Washington's blue-liners are asked to not come up as high in the neutral zone and play a more traditional defensive role, defenseman Karl Alzner said. The forwards are tasked with making sure they backcheck effectively and don't sacrifice stability on the back end.
Boudreau said he's not sure if the defensive style will be as prominent when the Capitals start filling opposing nets once again. He does want the team to continue working on it to the point where they're comfortable and confident playing a shut-down method, though, so that the option will be ready in Washington's toolbox.
"That's the way you have to play in the playoffs," Boudreau said. "If we learn how to do it now, hopefully by playoff time we'll have it down pat."
Exactly right, to be successful the team must know how to play defensively, some kind or variation of trap, but run and gun style is what attracts the fans in the regular season.
The recipe not to forget it is simple, play different styles depending where you are, on the road or at home.
"Mad" Mike Milburry, speaking words of wisdom (Dec. 17, 2010, cbc.ca):
These are difficult times for Washington and there is nowhere to look but in the mirror. Gone are the days of shake 'em up trades. There is always the coach to blame, but he is not alone in bearing responsibility. It's time for the players to circle the wagons and lean on each other. They have to be focused entirely on their profession. There has to be a clear mandate from the coach that defence is not an option, shot blocking is a must, and turnovers in critical areas are unacceptable.
Maybe this will be good for them. Maybe they will realize that they cannot win a Cup unless they find the desire to play defence-first hockey. Or maybe this winds up costing people their jobs. One way or the other, something or someone has to pop with the Caps.
And this is why I love the game. You just never know. Count me as humbled once again.