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Slow start, but no doubting Doughty's divinity

FIRST PERIOD

Think the media raised the bar high enough for the Los Angeles KingsDrew Doughty(notes), practically making it a statement of fact that he was the preseason favorite for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman?

Well, Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock rose the bar to the heavens this week. Babcock, who coached Doughty on Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics, gushed to reporters that the kid was “touched by God.”

There is no doubt Doughty is gifted. He is so smart and skilled that, at age 20, he earned a spot on the top pair and helped the Canadians win gold at the 2010 Winter Games. Then he finished the 2009-10 NHL season tied for third among defensemen in goals (16) and points (59).

But the Big Man works in mysterious ways. He tests us all. And Doughty, who turned 21 on Dec. 8, has not looked like a Norris candidate, let alone a favorite, for most of this season. “His start was not the way I would like to have seen it,” Kings coach Terry Murray said.

It wasn’t just the concussion that cost Doughty six games in October. He hasn’t produced at the same rate offensively. With one goal and 10 points in 22 games, he’s on pace for about three goals and 34 points in 76 games. He went 10 games without a point until a three-assist effort on Monday at Detroit. “That’s the crack in the door,” Murray said. “Maybe he can just kick it open and start to really turn it on.”

The problem for Doughty is that his halo has made him a target. Opponents are trying to knock it off his head. They try to hit him every time he makes a breakout pass. They jump in front of him so he can’t join the rush, making him stop and start, ruining his rhythm. They pay special attention to him on the power play so he can’t blast shot after shot. Nine of Doughty’s 16 goals came on the power play last season; the Kings ranked seventh in the league. His lone goal came on the power play this season; the Kings rank 25th.

“Obviously it’s frustrating, but that’s why I’ve got to become better,” Doughty said. “I’ve got to find a way to get around that. That’s going to make me hopefully get back in that Norris talk.”

Doughty thinks that’s doable.

“I know everyone’s saying my year isn’t as good as it was last year. It’s pretty much due to me just not getting points,” said Doughty, who is plus-9 despite his lack of production. “People don’t realize that defensively I’ve gotten a lot better, and even offensively I’m still creating chances. They just weren’t going in for me. It’s just a matter of time.”

SECOND PERIOD

We saw Alex Ovechkin(notes) in his underwear. We heard Bruce Boudreau drop F-bomb after F-bomb. But that wasn’t what was most revealing or refreshingly raw about the Washington Capitals’ appearance Wednesday night on HBO.

In the premiere of “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic” – the four-part, all-access series leading up to the teams’ meeting Jan. 1 in the NHL’s annual outdoor game – the Capitals acknowledged their weaknesses, showed how they’re working on them and left even more doubt that they can overcome them.

Owner Ted Leonsis talked about how the Caps have put pressure on themselves to win the Stanley Cup, and Boudreau and his players clearly showed that defensive play and mental toughness are big issues with this team – not just on a current losing streak that now has stretched to seven games, but in their prospects for success in the playoffs.

We’ve known that, or at least suspected it, but now we’ve seen it for ourselves from the inside. HBO showed Boudreau preaching defensive responsibility to his players at practice: “If we’re doing this long-term to win, we have to buy into this.” Later HBO showed Boudreau talking to the players during the second intermission of last Thursday night’s game against Florida. They had been stymied offensively by the Panthers and allowed a goal with one second left in the period.

“I have never seen a bunch of guys look so (bleeping) down when something bad happens,” Boudreau said. “What are you guys, like, prima-donna perfect, that … you can’t (bleeping) handle adversity?”

Boudreau lamented the players’ bad body language and urged them to outwork the opposition. “You look like you’re feeling sorry for yourselves,” he told them, “and nobody (bleeping) wants anybody that’s feeling sorry for themselves. You got 20 (bleeping) minutes. You’re down by one (bleeping) shot. Surely the (bleep) we can deal with this.”

The Caps couldn’t. They lost 3-0. HBO showed the players trudging back into the dressing room. Boudreau looked like he was about to come back and address the players again, but he stopped and turned away. Perhaps it was because he knew the cameras were there. Perhaps it was because he didn’t want to pile on. Perhaps it was because he didn’t know what else to say.

Boudreau tried to pump up his players at practice afterward. “You’re a team that won 55 games last year, were able to come back eight times, more than any team in the league, and we looked defeated by being on for one goal against at the end of the second period,” he said. “And this is going to our adversity for the year.”

Not quite. Boudreau was upbeat Saturday night after a 3-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, but when the Caps fell behind 3-0 on Sunday night against the New York Rangers, he called timeout and blasted his players. “We’re looking (bleeping) defeated right now!” he screamed. “Show some (bleeping) courage!” The Caps lost 7-0.

On a human level, it was a fascinating look at the frustration of a talented team on a losing streak, and kudos to the Pens and Caps agreeing to open up to HBO, knowing the risk the cameras could catch them like they have caught the Caps. But on a hockey level, you have to wonder: What buttons does Boudreau have left to push?

Guess we’ll have to tune in next week to find out.

THIRD PERIOD

The St. Louis Blues started the season 9-1-2. It was their best start in franchise history, but it didn’t last. How could it?

Defenseman Roman Polak(notes) (lacerated wrist) went down Oct. 28. Winger David Perron(notes) (concussion) went down Nov. 4. Winger T.J. Oshie(notes) (broken ankle) went down Nov. 10. Center Andy McDonald(notes) (concussion) went down Dec. 4. And now defensemen Alex Pietrangelo(notes) (upper body) and Erik Johnson(notes) (lower body) have injuries of their own, too.

No wonder the Blues have gone 5-9-3 over their past 17 games and suddenly sit in 12th place in the Western Conference. No wonder winger David Backes(notes) is literally rapping the bench in the dressing room with his knuckles. Oshie and McDonald were the Blues’ leading scorers when they left the lineup.

“I’m knocking on wood,” Backes said, “because I’m the leading scorer now.”

The Blues can’t allow themselves to make excuses. “We’re not going to bellyache about anything,” coach Davis Payne said. But the reality is that an injury epidemic like this would test any team’s depth, and the Blues now have a lot less firepower. In seven of their past 10 games, they’ve scored two goals or fewer.

“You think of McDonald, Perron and Oshie, they’re probably our three most skilled forwards,” Backes said. “Without them, our game obviously isn’t as pretty. But we’ve still got to play the same way – hard – and make sure we’re playing in the other team’s end.”

The Blues have no choice but to, as Payne put it, “ultra-focus on how good we have to be as a team.” The cavalry won’t be coming anytime soon to help in the ultra-tight Western Conference. Polak and Oshie will be out well into 2011. Perron and McDonald have not resumed skating yet.

“Things happen,” Backes said. “You’re going to have injuries. Hopefully we got all ours over with before Christmas.”

OVERTIME

At least the Blues’ injuries have opened up opportunities for others, and these stories never get old: The Blues called up winger Adam Cracknell(notes) on Monday afternoon, and the first people he called were his parents. Pat and Pete Cracknell took a red-eye flight from Victoria, B.C., to Seattle to Las Vegas to Detroit, arriving about 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday – in time to see their son’s first morning skate in the NHL.

Cracknell looked up to former Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, and he looked up at Yzerman’s retired No. 19 in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena. He couldn’t believe that finally, at age 25, he was mere hours away from making his NHL debut against the team he grew up watching.

“Just a little in awe right now still,” Cracknell said. “It’s a kid’s dream. I just hope other kids get to feel this feeling I get to feel.”

SHOOTOUT

Since the Atlanta Thrashers named Andrew Ladd(notes) their captain on Nov. 18, they have gone 10-2-1. General manager Rick Dudley said it was not a fluke, that the players have responded to Ladd’s leadership. Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien(notes) said: “Ladd has really stood out. I think he’s surprising a lot of people.”

Murray entered the season planning to give Jonathan Quick(notes) about 55-60 games in goal for the Kings, and give young backup Jonathan Bernier(notes) the rest. But Quick has played so well – ranking third in the NHL in goals-against average (1.80) and save percentage (.933) – Murray now plans to give him more. “When a player is on a roll, you want to keep going with him,” Murray said. “But I do need to get some games for Bernier here pretty soon.”

Quick is calm and loose. He’s not the kind of goaltender whom you cannot approach before a game – or even during a game like Monday night’s 51-save shutout victory at Detroit. “I remember he made one huge save in the second, and I went up to him and said something I can’t really say in the paper,” Doughty said. “But it was kind of a joke, and he laughed about it. That’s why we love him.”

Almost a week later, we’re still talking about the spin-o-rama shootout goal by Edmonton Oilers rookie Linus Omark(notes) against the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Dan Ellis(notes). Most of the talk has been about respect and showboating. But what about tactics? Omark’s move clearly startled Ellis and probably helped lead to the goal.

Lots of other good moments in the HBO show, but the best line came from Ovechkin. After teammate Alexander Semin(notes) cut Colorado Avalanche defenseman John-Michael Liles(notes), Ovechkin told an official that Liles “probably has sensitive skin.”