"I don't think Ovie's a coach killer," McPhee says. "Our whole team wasn't going well. The change of Bruce had nothing to do with Ovie and everything to do with the way we were playing. Yes, he's the captain. He sets the tone. And when he's going well, we're following."
There is a corollary. When the 26-year-old Ovechkin is scuffling—he had one goal in his past 11 games through Sunday; he had not had a multiple-point game since Nov. 4; and with just eight goals in 25 games he lags behind his dilatory pace of last season, when he scored a career-low 32—he is equally capable of dragging down a team. On the morning Boudreau was fired, Washington stood eighth in the Eastern Conference.
Will the change matter? Ovechkin had thrived under Boudreau, at least for the first two years after the coach was hired in November 2007. The winger had an NHL-best 171 goals between the '07--08 and '09--10 seasons. (Ovechkin, of course, also had zipped along nicely in his first two years under Boudreau's predecessor, Glen Hanlon, winning the Calder Trophy and averaging 49 goals a season.) And Hunter, who ranks 158th in career goals with 323, certainly did nothing to stunt the growth of the offensive wizards he coached in juniors, including the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane and the Islanders' John Tavares. "[Hunter] reminds me of my first coach [Zinetula] Bilyaletdinov [at Dynamo Moscow]," Ovechkin says. "He's a straight-up coach. If you make mistakes, you're going to know it right away. Of course if you play good defensively, you have a chance to play offensively well."
Ovechkin had not been playing well offensively on Nov. 1, when, with 87 seconds remaining and the Capitals pressing for a tying goal against Anaheim with an extra attacker, Boudreau kept his captain on the bench following a timeout. Ovechkin responded to the snub by swiveling his head to the left and saying, "Fat f---."
When Ovechkin looses an epithet in an arena, it almost always is in Russian. This was in playground English. If Ovechkin did not necessarily plan to let the hockey world know his thoughts via intrusive TV cameras and, within moments, the Internet, he had not been shy about expressing himself within earshot of teammates. Washington tied the score and won 5--4 in overtime—Ovechkin set up the game-winner—but the comment, which Boudreau says he never heard, lingered. As Kolzig notes, "You read lips. I read lips."
The Capitals bumbled through November, going 5-8-1. In the final minutes of a tight game against the Predators on Nov. 15, they stopped skating in anticipation of an offside whistle, and Nashville scored to tie the game, on the way to an eventual 3--1 win. The brain lock turned into system failure in catatonic road losses to the Jets and the Maple Leafs later that week; a pointless Ovechkin was -5 in those three matches. The death rattle for Boudreau came on Nov. 26 against the depleted Sabres. Early in the third period Buffalo center Luke Adam won the puck, skated unimpeded from the corner to the slot and rapped home the fourth goal in a 5--1 Sabres victory. Ovechkin, purportedly checking on the play, was as animated as his statue in Madame Tussauds, a few blocks from the Smithsonian. This was life imitating wax.
Thirty-six hours later McPhee essentially told the nation's capital: Read my lips. No new lapses.
"We had a good relationship," Ovechkin says in the hallway. "Somebody thinks I want to fire Bruce or something. Of course nobody was happy with how we play. [If people say] I'm not going to play hard because I want Bruce to be fired, it's not that way."
Washington winger Mike Knuble: "People seem to be looking at Alex a lot, but a lot of guys were guilty in that Buffalo game. I'm his teammate. I would never say something like [he's a coach killer]. I would never agree with a statement like that. But maybe that [play] was just everything in a nutshell."
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik: "You don't have to love your coach, but you have to respect him. As soon as that goes, the team's done. I don't know what went on there, but it's pretty easy to tell stuff if you watch."