The firing of Bruce Boudreau is still being talked about in Washington and beyond. Blame for what happened, including the Washington Capitals' recent struggles, is being directed at one player — the team captain, Alex Ovechkin.
Some people question his commitment to the team. Others question his leadership skills and whether he has the respect of his teammates. Ovechkin was even called a "coach killer" because of the recent dismissal of Boudreau.
But all of the above allegations cannot be further from the truth, at least for the players in the Capitals' dressing room. It's not only in their "on the record" conversations that they throw their support behind their captain. A few players (no, not Semin or Orlov) have said privately that Ovechkin is sincerely respected by his teammates in the dressing room; that he is very much a team player and works hard for the team.
As far as Ovechkin's recent struggles, I was told he is facing them without panic, concentrating on working hard on his game to improve and get out of the slump.
"There is no feeling of disappointment or panic," Ovechkin said Thursday about the team after the loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. "We have to keep playing the way we are playing and we won't be losing these types of games. Our team is playing a more physical, a faster hockey. Maybe we lost in skill a little bit, but we have improved in everything else. The new system is getting better and better."
After the interviews were done I was able to talk to Ovechkin about a few other things.
Q. There is a lot of talk surrounding the departure of Bruce Boudreau and a lot of people blame you for the coach getting fired. How are you reacting to these allegations? How are you trying to tune them out?
OVECHKIN: "How is it on me? How can I, a player, get a coach fired? How can I quit playing for the coach who gave me so much in my career? He helped me so much, and it was with his help I was able to win the Hart and the rest of the individual awards. It is complete nonsense that I would get Bruce fired. And to those who are saying we had some sort of a sour relationship with him, that is simply not the case. We had an excellent relationship."
The coach left now. Is his departure a bell that rang for you?
"Of course it's not like a doorbell, but a bell that rang for the entire team. No one can be 100 percent certain that he would be on the team. We all must keep working harder, we must keep playing. Again, look what happened — a coach who did so much in his tenure here for the team got let go. This is life. And now we have a new coach and we have to play for him. We have to fight for him. He trusts all and everyone of us who go out there on the ice. He and all players have already established an excellent relationship."
You have only played under Dale Hunter for a few days. Would you say that you already see how the system is changing?
"Of course the system is changing and it is noticeable. For example, we, the forwards, started playing a lot deeper in our defensive zone, the defensive responsibilities for the forwards are changing. We are also working on improving our offensive capabilities. We are good at holding on to the puck in the corners and along the boards, but we need to improve on getting that puck to the net, to the most dangerous areas for the offense. We must keep working on that."
For the second game in a row, your team had very few shots on goal. In the third period against the Pittsburgh Penguins you only had two shots on goal while trailing by one goal.
"We are adapting to the new system. We play a lot more behind the net, in the corners, and that's different from what we had to do before. Before, we would shoot as soon as we get in the zone. And now we are trying to create certain scoring opportunities. Again, this is a new system for us and we have to learn it as soon as possible to produce."
Your rivalry with Sidney Crosby is less visible somewhat right now. But is playing against him a good motivation for you?
"Honestly, he is just very interesting to play against. It is always interesting to play against great players. There is a lot of hype surrounding these types of games. And you're more focused on the battle, more focused on the win. It's like being in the playoffs. You don't hold anything back, you don't try to conserve anything, you play a lot more physical."
When do you think everything is going to turn around for you in terms of scoring?
"Everything will come, as well as luck and lucky bounces. The key is to continue working, working hard. There were so many 'so close' chances in [Thursday's] game, for example. You just shouldn't get fixated on that. When you talk to guys you say, 'Why doesn't it just go in?' There are excellent scoring opportunities for everyone, but it just doesn't go in. Look at the chance [Nicklas] Backstrom had. In that situation if you don't have that little bit of luck, it just won't go in. Without luck you won't even hit the open net."
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There's hope that Ovechkin's recovery from the slump will mirror the stock market — because after the deepest falls, the gains and bounces are even higher.