Daily Debate: Not even Alex Ovechkin gets a free pass

November, 2, 2011
11/02/11
10:19
AM ET
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss what Alex Ovechkin’s late-game benching means.

Burnside: Well, my friend, quite a game at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night as the Anaheim Ducks woke up offensively and built leads of 3-0 and 4-2 against the Washington Capitals before going to sleep defensively and allowing the Caps to tie it. Washington sent it to overtime with netminder Tomas Vokoun on the bench. Nicklas Backstrom supplied the tying and winning goals. But the story of the comeback, at least part of the story, was the fact that when it came time for Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau to put the six players on the ice he felt most capable of tying the game, captain Alexander Ovechkin wasn't among them.

In fact he didn't take another shift until after overtime was underway. Although he was on the ice for the winning goal and drew an assist on the play, much will be made of the fact that Boudreau was making a statement or sending a message. I'm not buying it. The fact he went with guys like Jason Chimera, Joel Ward and Brooks Laich in the waning moments of regulation is merely a continuation of standards Boudreau set during training camp; if you're playing well you get the ice time. If you're not, well, you don't. Ovechkin is off to another slow start by his standards with five goals and five assists, but the Caps are 8-2 and undefeated at home so I doubt many people in that room, starting with Ovechkin, will be doing much complaining. Thoughts?

LeBrun: Well I don't know about that last part, Scotty. I beg to differ on that one. Ovechkin didn't look too happy in the final minute of regulation when he realized he wasn't going out on the ice. He muttered something as he sat down. Then again, if he wasn't perturbed, I'd be worried. All-world players want to be on the ice with the game on the line. His reaction was a healthy one from that perspective.

I reached out to Boudreau this morning and he certainly didn't think it was a big deal. As you said, Scotty, he was just following the mantra that the Caps laid down from Day 1 of camp this year. The guys who are working hard and going that night will get the ice time.

“I know what people are saying, first time in history that I didn’t put him out in the last minute and they’re making a big stink about it,” Boudreau told ESPN.com. “But it was really nothing. I just thought that the Laich line was going and deserved to be out there.”

Laich's third line with Ward and Chimera has been unreal since the start of the season. The trio has really been the engine for the Caps in the opening month in terms of their two-way play and consistency.

“As coaches, I mean, you get a feeling and that Brooks Laich line was flying; I just had a feeling they were going to score," Boudreau said. “I’ve coached Alex for four years now. I just didn’t have a feeling he was going to score that night.”

And by the way, Boudreau's hunch paid off as the Caps tied the game and won it in overtime.

Burnside: If Ovechkin was upset -- and I get that top players always want to be on the ice -- boo-hoo. But my sense in talking to him over the past few years is that he is one of those guys that truly cares more about winning than anything else. Maybe I'm wrong, but this early season suggests that maybe the Caps are on the right track when it comes to translating considerable talent and regular-season success into something like a meaningful playoff run.

Yes they will need Ovechkin and Mike Green if he ever gets healthy etc., etc. But championship teams always get key contributions from up and down the lineup. No team epitomized that team effort more than the Boston Bruins last spring. But Pittsburgh, Chicago and Detroit all carried the same trait that the team was always more than the sum of its marquee players. Maybe the Caps will join that group next spring.

LeBrun: I completely agree with you there about the depth that is required to win. That was the point of my game column opening week when I was in Washington for the Caps' 6-5 shootout win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Again that night, Laich's line had a big outing. Before that game, GM George McPhee made a point of emphasizing how important it was for him to go out and acquire that kind of bottom-six depth in the offseason, bringing in the likes of Ward and Jeff Halpern, for example.

The hope from Washington's perspective is that come playoff time, when the going gets tough and the goals are harder to come by -- and perhaps Alexander Semin disappears -- that the team’s bottom-six group can provide the kind of support the club hasn't had in past seasons. One month in the season, that looks very promising.

Burnside: To me, that's why the Caps are such an intriguing story as this season progresses. McPhee never has been shy to add pieces he thinks will get his team over the top without altering the core of his team. Remember Cristobal Huet? He helped get the Caps to the top of the Southeast Division in 2008. Sergei Fedorov, Scott Walker, Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm, Joe Corvo etc. etc.

It's way too early to tell whether this group is the group that represents the correct combination on the Stanley Cup safe, but the early signs are sure positive. One element of this team that might be different is that there seems to be a lot more willingness to go to the net. Think of recent Cup winners, and there are a lot of dirty goals scored in April, May and June -- goals the Caps never seemed to get enough of the last four springs.

LeBrun: And for Boudreau, as he showed again last night, he knows his job is probably on the line this season as he attempts to finally get his star-studded club over the playoff hump. So from Day 1 of camp, all bets have been off. He warned his players even before camp that it would be the toughest training camp of their careers. McPhee held individual meetings over the summer with core players, challenging them to take ownership of the team. The Caps mean business this season. There are no more free passes for anyone, regardless of your name or your salary. And I say, good on them.

Later, Scotty.

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