TORONTO – On the verge of a milestone victory that would come with an entry in the NHL record book, Bruce Boudreau was doing what he does best—coaching.
Sensing that his struggling Washington Capitals were in need of a break after a late-night arrival from Winnipeg, Boudreau called off a scheduled practice at Air Canada Centre on Friday afternoon.
“I just want them to take the time off and rest,” he told reporters. “With games Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, it seems never-ending. There’s not a chance sometimes, with us getting in at 3:30 in the morning last night, I didn’t think a practice would really accomplish a lot. Sometimes not being on the ice is good.
“Last week we skated them really hard; this week you try a different tactic.”
Anything to try and coax a victory that would mean more to Boudreau than most, especially if it comes Saturday night in his hometown against the Maple Leafs. The 56-year-old is stuck on 199 career NHL coaching victories and would become the fastest to reach 200 in league history, eclipsing a mark held by Don Cherry.
Cherry reached the milestone in his 341st game and Boudreau will be coaching his 325th on Saturday. Even though the honour would come with an asterisk—Boudreau’s total includes 50 shootout and overtime victories—it’s still a remarkable achievement for a journeyman who got his start behind the bench as a player-assistant with the IHL’s Fort Wayne Komets in 1990.
That would be followed by 17 years of bouncing around various minor pro teams before the Caps gave him his first chance in the NHL in November 2007. There has been plenty of success during his tenure in Washington, although not enough of it in the post-season for anyone’s liking.
The first signs of trouble emerged this season after the team set a franchise record with seven straight wins to open the year. It followed that stretch by dropping consecutive games in Edmonton and Vancouver, prompting veteran forward Mike Knuble to suggest the problems had been getting “swept under the rug a little bit.”
They’ve been out in the open for all to see lately, with Thursday’s 4-1 loss in Winnipeg dropping the Caps to 1-4-1 over their last six games. They’ve experienced the same problem that plagues most stumbling squads—a lack of goal production, particularly on the power play.
“You see the way some guys are fanning on the pucks and I think it’s because they’re over-anxious,” said Boudreau. “They want to do so well, and yet, sometimes you squeeze the stick so hard that nothing works for you. I think some guys are at that stage right now where they just have to relax—and they’re very skilled players—and just do what comes natural to them.”
Naturally, the focus in that department has fallen largely on Alex Ovechkin. Variations of the “What’s wrong with Alex?” story have been written around the league and Boudreau declined to answer questions about his struggling captain following Thursday’s loss to the Jets.
He’s experienced a sharp decline in scoring dating back to the start of last season. Ovechkin had 269 goals in 396 games over the first five years of his career (an average of .68 goals per game), but has just 39 goals in his last 96 games (averaging .41 goals per game).
That total includes seven goals in 17 games this season—tying the two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner for 26th overall in the NHL entering play Friday.
“I do my best, I try to score goals,” said Ovechkin. “I try to do what I have to do. Sometimes, I just can’t score.”
Boudreau has remained supportive of his captain, even after the two had a recent clash on the bench during a game.
The veteran coach often has a smile on his face—that could be seen throughout last year’s HBO “24/7” series when Washington was struggling—and once again believes better days lie ahead.
“We’ll correct it,” said Boudreau. “I think every team in the NHL this year is going to go through at least one stretch where they’re going to lose five out of six or six out of 10. Hopefully this is our stretch that we’ve just gone through.
“We’ll turn the corner because all good teams turn corners.”
Spoken like a man who has coached his way out of a few losing streaks over the years.