- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Boudreau: "I'm really naive. I always thought me and Alex had a good relationship. I don't know if it's true or not true, but I don't want to believe it. The proof will probably be in how he plays a month from now."
Adjacent to Leonsis's desk in his Verizon Center office is an easel that holds an oversized tablet of lined white paper, a sort of Brobdingnagian legal pad. There are lines and arrows and one elongated swoop on the left side that veers to the top of the page. That swoop, the Capitals' owner explained last Thursday, is Ovechkin. Earlier Leonsis had been diagramming a play for Ernie Grunfeld, president of the NBA's Wizards, another Leonsis property, to show a basketball guy what his hockey people wanted from their star. "Hard work, determination, adaption," Leonsis said. "Alex has two or three people on him at all times. You might not enjoy dumping the puck and then getting it, but that might be what you need to do to win."
A few hours later Ovechkin would go back to the drawing board against Sidney Crosby. There is an air of anticipation to their meetings, of course, but since their bravura displays in a second-round playoff series in 2009—Ovechkin and Crosby combined for 16 goals and 27 points as the Penguins won in seven games—Ovie versus Sid seems as dated as Athens versus Sparta. There is hardly any dissent that Crosby, even after missing more than 10 months with post-concussion symptoms, is the dominant player in the world. Ovechkin might have trouble making the case that he is No. 2.
The reason: adaptation. Ovechkin was the Russian Evolution when he entered the NHL with Crosby in 2005--06—a unique blend of speed, skill and physicality—but Crosby has evolved. He has improved his shot and scoring range. He has become a master at deflections. He has become a force on face-offs. Ovechkin, who topped 45 goals in each of his first five seasons, still draws gasps when he hurtles down the wing, but too often he dips to the middle and rifles a 25-footer. Undeniably the two men remain hockey rock stars. But Crosby has moved on to Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band while Ovechkin has never left his Meet the Beatles phase. Sure it's a classic, but....
"When Ovie came into the league the game almost came easy to him," McPhee says. "Like [Teemu] Selanne or [Alex] Mogilny, guys like that. At some point you have to start making adjustments because the league's made adjustments to you. Ovie's been guilty of relying too much on the outside shot and not going to the net enough, [the place where] most goals are scored."
He also has coasted, literally. When deigning to backcheck, he often glides, skating nearly upright, into the defensive zone. The feral hunger, an attribute that seemed to make the 13-year, $124 million extension he signed in 2008 a worthwhile investment—Ovechkin's annual salary-cap hit will be $9,538,462 until 2021—has been mostly absent. "The first couple of years, anytime he stepped on the ice he was full bore—go, go, go," says Kolzig, a teammate for Ovechkin's first three seasons. "I think he's gotten away from that. He's not looking for the easy play, but he's not taking the bull by the horns like he did. And I think Dale will probably get that back out of him."
In his second game, against Pittsburgh, the coach certainly extracted something Boudreau recently had not. Ovechkin backchecked on one first-period play as if his hair were on fire. He was credited with 10 hits. Ovechkin looked like a highly motivated student trying to impress his new teacher. But his once symbiotic connection with center Nicklas Backstrom still seems mildly disjointed—six minutes into the second period Backstrom failed to bury a sweet Ovechkin feed from the half boards into an open net. The Capitals, who "used to score six goals for sport," in Pittsburgh G.M. Ray Shero's memorable phrase, were outshot 35--17 and again lost 2--1 as they had in Hunter's Nov. 29 debut against the Blues. They did rebound last Saturday to give Hunter his first win, a 3--2 overtime defeat of the Senators. Ovechkin had the primary assist on the second goal.
"It's coming back," Ovechkin says. "It doesn't go away in three months or five months.... It's just coming. It's coming back."
Loose lips aside, there is a chance that Ovechkin is not the coach killer. The fatal wound could have been self-inflicted. When Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak, in the best two weeks of his career, stoned the Presidents' Trophy--winning Capitals in a 2010 first-round upset, Turn-'Em-Loose Bruce and McPhee, on the heels of consecutive playoff disappointments, concluded that a you-score-five-we'll-score-six mentality would never work in the spring. The team embarked on an identity makeover. The logical endgame in a quest for more structure was to hire a coach who, on his first day, said that he didn't "believe in run-and-gun-hockey." Says Hunter of Ovechkin, "I've talked to him.... Good guy. He wants to win. We need him to score goals."
"I've been most impressed with Dale behind the bench," veteran center Jeff Halpern said the morning after the Pittsburgh loss. "His feel during the game, his understanding of where the game is shifting and his being able to respond is excellent. He's probably not going to volunteer to do public speaking. But for whatever reason, when the game starts, he comes to life."