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By Dan Di Sciullo
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Bruce Boudreau has a reputation as a player's coach, albeit a foul-mouthed one for those of us who watched him chew up the scenery last year in HBO's acclaimed 24/7 series.
But, Boudreau played against type in Washington's latest game and by doing so he sent a powerful message to his team.
It happened late in the third period of Tuesday's game against the visiting Anaheim Ducks. The Capitals were trailing Anaheim by a goal with just over a minute remaining in regulation and as Boudreau prepared his team for the ensuing faceoff, superstar Alex Ovechkin stood on the ice and listened to his coach set up the play.
But, when it came time for Boudreau to send his six skaters on the ice, Ovechkin was not one of them.
It may not seem like a big deal, but it was.
Ovechkin is a two-time league MVP and possibly the most dangerous offensive player in the world. When your goalie is out for an extra attacker it's hard to fathom finding a better potential scorer to put on the ice over Ovechkin.
Instead, Boudreau went with a gut feeling, sending forwards Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Joel Ward and Jason Chimera to the ice with defensemen Dennis Wideman and John Carlson. Boudreau's premonition came true as Backstrom tied the game with 42 seconds left in regulation.
"I was playing a hunch," Boudreau told the media on Wednesday. "That line was going so good and I thought that every time they were on the ice they had the puck in their zone. I just thought they were going to score."
Backstrom would score again to win the game in overtime. Ovechkin picked up an assist on that one, but after the game all anybody wanted to talk about was No. 8 not being on the ice at the end of regulation.
"I don't want him to be complacent and say 'Oh, that's nice.' So, I think that's what the idea was, not the plan, but knowing him, he's going to be upset."
For the most part, Boudreau did his best to play down Tuesday's events, taking the stance that the benching of Ovechkin was more about playing a hunch and going with hot players than proving a point. That may be true to an extent, but Boudreau also revealed that getting under Ovechkin's skin is a great way to motivate his star player and that knowledge had to play a role in the coach's controversial decision.
"Alex understands and gets it," Boudreau said. "He's a great captain that way. He gets mad because he wants to play and he wants to compete."
In the end, all of this comes back to Boudreau feeling the heat in Washington. He has brought tons of regular-season success to D.C. since taking the job in 2007, but the Capitals have not performed well in the postseason, losing in the first or second round in the four previous campaigns. Another 121-point season like Washington had in 2009-10 -- when the Capitals lost in the first round to eighth-seeded Montreal -- may not even be enough to save Boudreau's job if his team falters in the postseason yet again.
The coach has tried before to fix the club's postseason problems during the regular season and he must know that he is running out of chances to do so. Boudreau put a stronger emphasis on team defense last year, but the Caps still wound up getting swept in the second round by Tampa Bay.
That's why this year has been all about accountability and taking nothing for granted. If Boudreau can't fix his club's bad habits and make a deep playoff run then he could be looking for a job this summer.
It doesn't matter that Washington won its first seven games of this year and is currently boasting an 8-2-0 record, Boudreau knows that if he doesn't raise the stakes for his players then it could be the same old story this spring. The head coach wants all his players, including his superstar, to be on the same page at all times and he knows that sometimes actions speak louder than words.
"There's nothing to talk about," Boudreau said Wednesday when asked if he had spoken to Ovechkin about the benching. "We've all understood it, it's from day one ... I hope the message has gotten clear from July to now and I'm hoping we don't change that message. We're going to try and stay strong with it and that's the only way we're going to be successful."
Ovechkin isn't the only player to feel Boudreau's wrath this year, but his benching had to carry the most weight with his teammates. There was no better way for Boudreau to send a message to the entire team than sitting his captain and franchise player in a key situation.
That message was received by everyone, including Ovechkin.
"It's one team and it doesn't matter who you are," Ovechkin said on Wednesday. "If you want to win you have to be on the same page. Everybody."
The next time Washington is down a goal late and has pulled the goalie for an extra attacker, expect Ovie to be out on the ice. It's not good strategy to leave such a dangerous weapon on the bench when your team needs a goal, but the benching did serve a valuable one-time purpose.
Whether that purpose pays off in end is a question that won't be answered until the playoffs, but Boudreau has taught his club a valuable lesson for now.
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