"Where's No. 8?"
That was the immediate question with 1:02 left in the third period and the Washington Capitals trailing the Anaheim Ducks by a goal on Tuesday night. Tomas Vokoun had been yanked for an extra skater; so where was No. 8 for Anaheim, Teemu Selanne, trying to tally the 23rd hat trick of his career with an empty-netter and complete a five-point night?
"No, stupid … where's the other No. 8?"
The Capitals had six skaters on the ice and none of them were Alex Ovechkin.
The captain. The dude with 306 career goals and 52 game-winning goals. The meal ticket, the franchise, the guy with the wax statue down the road at the museum.
As Coach Bruce Boudreau talked to his troops, Keith Jones of VERSUS was between the benches opining:
"If you're the Capitals' Bruce Boudreau, you want to get the guys that are going in this game on the ice. Ovechkin, of course, is going to be one of those guys. But why not have Joel Ward on the ice? Deserving of that because of the way he played in this game. Chimera on the ice, a guy that's been all over the puck. That's what Boudreau has to contemplate right now."
After Boudreau was done diagramming, he turned to Ovechkin, shook his head briefly as he said something, stepped on the bench and walked around him. Ovechkin looked agitated. He dropped an F-bomb. He then dropped an F-bomb with an adjective "fat" in front of it as players like Chimera and Ward took the ice. (Watch the video here; NSFW title.)
The result: Nicklas Backstrom scored the game-tying goal with 42 seconds left. Assisted by Jason Chimera and Brooks Laich. Without Ovechkin or Alex Semin on the ice.
[Related: Capitals rally to beat Ducks 5-4 in overtime]
Said Ovechkin in a VERSUS interview after the game, swallowing his pride like a comped rail drink at a Moscow club:
"The Ward and Brooks Laich line play unbelievable today. They score like four goals. It's a coaching decision so it's working."
Naturally, this all led to clutching of the pearls over a player cussing about his coach's decision and questions about a rift between a star player and his coach. All of which ignores the fact that Ovechkin's reaction and Bruce Boudreau's "gut" are both the type of things that are eventually going to win the Stanley Cup for the Capitals.
The incident, caught on camera, and Boudreau's response are here via CSN Washington:
Boudreau began his press conference by answering a question about the grinders being out for the game-tying goal.
"They were playing good. Other guys, not so much," he said.
So why wasn't Ovechkin out there? Was he not at his best against the Ducks?
"You watched the game. You tell me," he said.
OK, having watched the game, here it goes: Ovechkin had four shots on goal, two blocked and three that missed. He was credited with one hit. The Ducks' defense schooled him for most of the night: Cutting off his shooting angles, using their sticks to monkey with his rushes into the zone. His shots off the rush were off target. Frequently, he was trying to cherry-pick offensive chances by floating at the top of the defensive zone while his linemates were getting forechecked into oblivion. It's not something Ovechkin does every night anymore, but it's a frustrating tendency that shows up now and again.
Boudreau, seeing all of this, limited Ovechkin to 17:51 time on ice; including last night's game, he's averaged 18:36 on the season.
As for not being out for the final minute, Boudreau said of Ovechkin:
"I thought other guys were better than him and I thought it was just a chance that other guys might score the goal. I've gotta put out the guys that I think are going to score the goal. And 99 percent of the time, Alex is the guy I think is going to score the goal. I just didn't think he was going to score the goal at that time tonight. So, I mean, you go with your gut feeling thinking that other line is going pretty good. And I got lucky."
Any criticism of Boudreau should be nullified by the fact that the Capitals (a) tied the game and (b) won the game in overtime, 5-4, again on a Backstrom goal.
Most of the hyperbole about a rift between coach and player misses the fact that Ovechkin wasn't benched for the rest of the game: He had the primary assist on Backstrom's goal in overtime, hitting the ice 1:51 into the extra session.
And yet both are taking their lumps after the game, especially Ovechkin. Here's renowned players-coach Mike Keenan on VERSUS last night, via Steve Whyno of the Washington Times:
"When is a teacher a great teacher? When the student is ready to learn. In this case Alex Ovechkin has to show a lot more respect to his coaching staff and to his team. There's a response here that's not a positive response. I give Bruce Boudreau a lot of credit for making this decision. He's delivering a message to the star player and his team. That kind of behavior on the ice is not acceptable: Details have to be looked at if we're going to be a championship team.
"This is a great night. It took a lot of courage for Bruce to do that. A lot of people will question if he had the courage to make that call — he did. The response was great. Eventually his top player came out and responded and made a great assist."
What's the proper response here for Ovechkin? Kissing Bruce's ring? Taking out his playbook on the bench and studying up for overtime?
Sure, you never want your captain caught on film saying his coach is a "fat [expletive]," making Ovechkin roughly the 10,000th person to ever utter that in Boudreau's presence. But if you're a Capitals fan, don't you want to see him perturbed about riding the pine because of his lack of production? Some fire? Some pride? Some sense that this whole thing is going to hinge on immediate merit rather than reputation?
Isn't this what Capitals fans and NHL pundits have been craving after every playoff flop: To not have Boudreau rely on the unreliable just because of their contracts but put the guys in there that'll actually win the games?
While Keenan's lament about "respect" is a 1994 mindset applied to a 2011 athlete, his take on Boudreau is completely correct. He played the hot hand, the guys who earned a shot. And lest anyone think this is a case of benching his stars in favor of the grunts, the guy who scored the game-tying goal and game-winning goal has a long-term contract and a 100-point season on his résumé
"I thought Nicky was going to do something. I didn't know about the overtime thing," said Boudreau.
This decision by Boudreau, and if he does it again this season, isn't one made without the backing of management and ownership. Ovechkin not being out for a 6-on-5 doesn't make him any less of a star, or sell one less ticket.
The time for personnel decisions to be determined by name recognition are over for this franchise. The focus is on winning, no matter the bruised egos.
Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
• Shaquille O'Neal tells how his relationship with Kobe Bryant soured
• Frank McCourt finally gives up senseless fight, will sell Dodgers
• Browns RB Peyton Hillis ripped for what he didn't do