By John Feinstein
Nine days ago, when the whispers about Bruce Boudreau’s job security as coach of the Washington Capitals were growing louder by the minute, George McPhee was asked the following question: “When is it time to panic?”
McPhee has been the Caps’ general manager for nearly 15 years now and he knew the question was code. Translated, it meant, “When do you have to fire Bruce?”
McPhee smiled a world-weary smile, shrugged his shoulders and said: “I’m not sure. I’ll know it when I see it.”
Saturday night, McPhee saw it. He had probably seen it before then but the camera lens had been a little bit blurred because, for very good reason, he didn’t want to see it. But when the Caps shuffled out of Buffalo after a 5-1 loss in which they showed about as much intensity as might be expected at a morning skate, McPhee knew it was time.
That’s why he called Boudreau in at 6:15 on Monday morning to tell him he was no longer the Caps’ coach. Boudreau couldn’t have been surprised. As far back as last December he had come under fire when the Caps dropped eight straight games, seven months after their meltdown the previous spring in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In a very real sense, that first-round loss to the Canadiens two years ago hangs over this franchise like an albatross. The Caps had hockey’s best record that season and led the series 3-1 against a Montreal team that appeared to have tee times already made prior to Game 5 in Washington.
Because of that loss, the Caps lost confidence as a franchise. They tinkered with their style, hoping that asking the players to play at both ends of the ice instead of just one would make a difference in the playoffs.
It did make a difference. Alex Ovechkin went from being a two-time MVP to being a good player — nothing more. He was overweight most of last season and lacked the extra gear when he was carrying the puck. He lost weight this summer, came to camp in shape and found a different Boudreau waiting for him on the practice ice.
There would be no more Ovi Rules this season. If the team was doing sprints and everyone was supposed to skate to the blue line that meant everyone skated to the blue line, including past MVPs and past 40-goal scorers (aka Ovechkin’s pal Alexander Semin). McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis wanted more accountability, players being held responsible for under-performing. When newly acquired goalie Tomas Vokoun had a lackluster preseason, Boudreau started Michal Neuvirth on opening night — with McPhee’s backing.
One could almost sense the tension that night, even after the Caps beat the Carolina Hurricanes in overtime. When Boudreau was asked about giving up a late goal that forced overtime he began rattling off old, irrelevant statistics about his team’s ability to hold a third-period lead.
The 7-0 start, which McPhee admitted was a little bit deceiving, calmed the waters briefly. But when Boudreau sat Ovechkin in the final minute of regulation against Anaheim on Nov. 1 with the Caps needing a tying goal, that was, as it turned out, his Waterloo. The Caps won the game and McPhee — again — backed Boudreau.
It didn’t matter. Ovechkin had decided he wanted Boudreau gone. Any battle between a superstar — even a struggling superstar — with a long-term contract and a coach is going to be won by the superstar. Ovechkin sulked and stopped even pretending to back-check. After scoring five goals in 10 games, he scored three in the next 12. The Caps were 8-2 after the win over Anaheim. They were 4-7-1 from that point until Boudreau’s tenure came to a close.
Boudreau did not deserve to be fired. His record is too good for that and he did exactly what he was asked to do by Leonsis and McPhee this season. He gave everything he had to the job. As McPhee put it, “there was no gas left in the tank.”
But McPhee had no choice. He couldn’t sit still for performances like the one in Buffalo and the team’s overall lackluster play for the last month. He couldn’t wait for Mike Green to come back, even though Green’s absence has played almost as big a role in the team’s mediocrity as Ovechkin’s invisible act.
It was Catch-22 for Boudreau. He gambled that benching Ovechkin at a crucial time — even for just one shift — would turn him into the old Ovechkin on the ice. Instead, Ovechkin acted as if he was going to be fined anytime he checked someone and skated with all the enthusiasm of a linesman retrieving a puck after an icing call. Maybe less than that.
Whether Dale Hunter will be the answer remains to be seen. Tuesday night’s loss doesn’t prove anything more than a win would have proved. He has no baggage with these players and having his number in the rafters of Verizon Center won’t hurt, either. Players who help get coaches fired often work very hard for the new coach to prove they were right to want the old guy gone.
Time will tell.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com