The Montreal Canadiens have more than Alex Ovechkin to keep an eye on Thursday night when they visit the Washington Capitals.
Unheralded defenceman Mike Green is blossoming into an offensive force on the back end for the Caps. He was tied with Montreal’s Andrei Markov for the NHL lead in goals by defencemen at eight apiece before other games Wednesday night, a surprising piece of trivia even for the most ardent hockey fans.
“My buddies, that’s about it,” Green said with a laugh when asked who might know the answer to that question.
But the 22-year-old Calgary native is no laughing matter. The 2004 first-round draft pick, 29th overall by Washington, is finding his groove in his second full NHL season.
“Mike Green is not a name that stands out,” Caps interim head coach Bruce Boudreau said Wednesday. “It’s not (Bryan) McCabe or something like that. Nobody realizes that he can play. He’s got eight goals and he should have more.
“It’s Game 34 and I think he’s just starting to blossom and getting confidence in his game at this point.”
After getting his feet wet with 22 NHL games in 2005-06, Green’s first full season in the league last year saw him pick up 12 points (2-10) in 70 games in limited ice time. It was a quiet first year as Green learned the ropes.
“The biggest thing was adjusting to the speed,” Green said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “Now that I got the hang of it and the feel of it, I can start to wind up and skate and do some of those things that before I was kind of hesitant just because of the speed.”
Now he’s doing what he was doing in junior with the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades and then with Hershey in the AHL. He returned to Hershey for the 2007 Calder Cup playoffs and led all defencemen with 16 points (7-9) in 19 games. He also had 43 points (9-34) in 56 regular-season games with Hershey in 2005-06.
Boudreau got a first-hand look as Hershey’s head coach.
“I got to believe that I know him as well as most people,” Boudreau said. “I’ve been impressed with him since Day 1 and he’s going to just get better.”
When Boudreau replaced the fired Glen Hanlon behind the Caps bench on Nov. 22, few players benefited more than Green. The two had a prior relationship and Boudreau wanted to let Green strut his stuff.
So the ice time has grown, including a season-high 30:05 in an overtime win against the New York Rangers on Dec. 12 (Green scored the OT winner) and 27:23 in his last game, a shootout loss at Detroit on Monday night.
“I hate this analogy, but the more he plays the stronger he gets,” said Boudreau. “When I had him in the AHL playoffs, he’d be playing 30 minutes-plus, in the second overtime he’d be stronger than the first overtime. I don’t know what it is about him, but he plays with such a passion.
“The more important the game, the more excited he is.”
People are beginning to notice.
“I was real impressed with the Green kid on the back end, I thought he was excellent,” Wings head coach Mike Babcock after Monday’s game.
Green says his familiarity with Boudreau from their Hershey days has been key.
“I think the main thing is that I know what’s expected out of me from him,” said Green. “He makes that very clear. He also gives me the confidence to do what I can do.
“He’s been great for me, I can’t say enough about how much he’s helped me. It’s been great to get an opportunity to do what I can do.”
Boudreau said it’s about believing in a player.
“When you have faith in somebody, usually that somebody gives the faith back to you,” said Boudreau. “He knows he can go out there, and he’s a young guy, and play his game and he’s going to make mistakes. But he’s going to be thrown right back out there because it’s the only way he’s going to learn. And he usually learns very quickly.”
Green also has six assists to go with his eight goals. He’s a fast skater and his end-to-end rushes will soon become a staple on TV highlight shows.
Consider his idols growing up – both major offensive star defencemen.
“When I was really young it was Al MacInnis when he was in Calgary,” said Green. “As I got older and watched more hockey it became Scott Niedermayer.”
But he’s not all about finesse. He lists former UFC light-heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell as his favourite athlete.
“I love the UFC, watching what those guys go through as far as training. It blows my mind,” said Green, a trim 6-1 and 208 pounds. “I just think those guys are top athletes. And Liddell is one of the best in UFC.”
Maybe it’s that UFC vibe in him, but Green wore a Mohawk in the AHL. Not anymore.
“That was my two years in the minors when we went to the playoffs and I grew one for the playoffs,” laughed Green. “But I guess you got to be a little more professional in this league.”